Friday Bible Blogging Archive

Friday, November 15, 2013

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.

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.

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.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Friday Bible Blogging - Ezra 1 to Ezra 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).

BibleChapters 1 through 10 constitute the entirety of Ezra. However, Ezra was originally part of a larger book - Ezra-Nehemia, combined with, as is obvious from the name, Nehemia (which immediately follows it in the Bible). These were about repopulating and rebuilding Judah after the Babylonian exile. However, as the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NOAB) points out, it's difficult to figure out the chronology just from Ezra-Nehemiah as it's not very clear. In fact, there are multiple anachronisms throughout the book, and its depiction of events contrasts with the books of Haggai and Zechariah (I'm not going to point out the anachronisms and conflicts in my review, but you can read a bit more about them here). Additionally, as with so much of the Bible, the archaeological evidence indicates that whatever actual events the story might be based on, it wasn't as grand as the Biblical narrative would indicate, "Archaeological studies suggest only limited development in the province of Judah during the Persian period. This raises questions about the extent and effectiveness of the reconstruction that Ezra-Nehemiah describes." However, that is still development. A footnote in the NOAB in chapter 2 also noted that there was development at some of the sites mentioned in the book. So, there probably is some truth to the stories, just a little more humble than what's written here.

There's one very interesting aspect of these books that gets lost in translation - they're written in multiple languages. This is because they quote different sources, such as letters to and from kings. So, there are passages in both Hebrew and Aramaic. But this gets lost when you read an English translation.

Ezra, Chapter 1

The first few verses of this chapter were nearly identical to the last few verses from 2 Chronicles - the part where King Cyrus of Persia sent out a decree to the Jews to go back to Judah and rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. The NOAB notes that despite this, there are enough differences elsewhere to indicate separate authorship for the two books. It seems that one of the authors copied from the other.

While it may seem a bit strange for a king to fund the rebuilding of a temple for an outside religion, the NOAB notes that there are records of King Cyrus doing this. I suppose that if you're a polytheist rather than a monotheist, then it's not really so strange - just one more god you're supporting. It could also be more political than religious, garnering support from your subjects by helping them out.

The remainder of the chapter was about the surviving Jews getting together to return.

Ezra, Chapter 2

Chapter 2 was little more than a long list of how many people were returning, listing specific numbers for each family. For example:

The number of the Israelite people: 3the descendants of Parosh, two thousand one hundred and seventy-two. 4Of Shephatiah, three hundred and seventy-two. 5Of Arah, seven hundred and seventy-five. 6Of Pahath-moab, namely the descendants of Jeshua and Joab, two thousand eight hundred and twelve.

A few notable people were listed by name, particularly priests, Levites, and temple servants. This section and the numerous 'begat' sections from other books show just how important genealogy and bloodlines were to the Israelites. In fact, there's a passage in this chapter related to this that I found interesting:

These looked for their entries in the genealogical records, but they were not found there, and so they were excluded from the priesthood as unclean; 63the governor told them that they were not to partake of the most holy food, until there should be a priest to consult Urim and Thummim.

The community was so concerned about heredity (and scared of Yahweh), that they wouldn't let unconfirmed priests practice, at least until they could break out their magic divination tools.

The last few verses announced their arrival in Jerusalem, and how a few of them immediately made freewill-offerings to God.

Ezra, Chapter 3

Now that they were back in their homeland, the Jews began to rebuild the temple. Much of this chapter described the offerings that were made to accompany different stages of the construction. There was a mention of "the law of Moses the man of God", which according to the NOAB, this might have been some form of the Pentateuch. The chapter closed with the foundation for the temple being laid, and a mixed reaction from the people:

And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. 12But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house.

Ezra, Chapter 4

When the "adversaries of Judah and Benjamin" learned that the Jews had returned and were rebuilding the temple, they at first approached them asking to help, "for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him ever since the days of King Esar-haddon of Assyria who brought us here." So apparently, these were the remnant of the settlers from 2 Kings 17. Though they could also be composed partly from Judeans who had escaped the exile. At any rate, the returning Jews rejected their help so that they could do it on their own. This upset their adversaries, who subsequently gave them problems throughout the rest of the reconstruction process, from bribing officials to sending letters of accusation to the king. In fact, the remainder of the chapter dealt largely with one of their letters to King Artaxerxes and his response. The letter accused the Jews of being a rebellious people, and that they would revolt as soon as they finished rebuilding the city. Artaxerxes had officials search the country's archives, and found evidence "that this city has risen against kings from long ago, and that rebellion and sedition have been made in it." So, he put a stop to the reconstruction. The final verse of the chapter notes that this stoppage lasted until the reign of King Darius of Persia.

Ezra, Chapter 5

With the start of chapter 5, the Jews were back to rebuilding the house of God. The governor of the region, Tattenai, questioned their actions, and sent a letter to the then current king, Darius. Most of this chapter was Tattenai's letter. It wasn't accusatory like in the previous chapter, but merely questioning the story he'd heard from the Jews about Cyrus's decree.

Ezra, Chapter 6

King Darius had the Babylonian archives searched, "But it was in Ecbatana, the capital in the province of Media, that a scroll was found ..." This scroll confirmed the decree from Cyrus, and even said "let the cost be paid from the royal treasury". So Darius gave the Jews his support, instructing Tattenai to give them whatever they needed to complete the temple.

The new temple was completed "on the third day of the month of Adar, in the sixth year of the reign of King Darius." There was celebration and animal sacrifice, and when the time came, the returned exiles even kept the Passover. The chapter included the statement that the Passover lamb was even eaten "also by all who had joined them and separated themselves from the pollutions of the nations of the land to worship the Lord, the God of Israel." So, even though they'd been rejected from helping in the reconstruction of the temple, they were being allowed to join the community, now.

Ezra, Chapter 7

Chapter 7 introduces the book's namesake, Ezra. I found it a bit amusing as it was so stereotypical of a topic I've already discussed - genealogy:

After this, in the reign of King Artaxerxes of Persia, Ezra son of Seraiah, son of Azariah, son of Hilkiah, 2son of Shallum, son of Zadok, son of Ahitub, 3son of Amariah, son of Azariah, son of Meraioth, 4son of Zerahiah, son of Uzzi, son of Bukki, 5son of Abishua, son of Phinehas, son of Eleazar, son of the chief priest Aaron-- 6this Ezra went up from Babylonia.

Ezra "was a scribe skilled in the law of Moses that the Lord the God of Israel had given; and the king granted him all that he asked, for the hand of the Lord his God was upon him." King Artaxerxes gave Ezra a letter of support to take with him back to Judah. It authorized Ezra to use royal supplies in rebuilding Jerusalem, and also gave Ezra himself authority over the region. This doesn't fit with the description of Artaxerxes from chapter 4, but like I wrote in the intro, this book is hard to follow.

There was a passage here that I find interesting because of its possible historical significance. It was in the king's edict, "All who will not obey the law of your God and the law of the king, let judgement be strictly executed on them, whether for death or for banishment or for confiscation of their goods or for imprisonment." According to the NOAB, some scholars think this verse suggests that the Torah was compiled by Ezra at this time.

The chapter closed with a first person perspective supposedly written by Ezra himself, thanking God for his good fortune.

Ezra, Chapter 8

Chapter 8 continued with the first person perspective from Ezra. It began with a list of the family heads of those that went with him back to Judah. Then it listed a few details of the trip from Babylon to Judah. One of the details that stood out to me was rejecting an offer from the king of "a band of soldiers and cavalry to protect us against the enemy on our way". Ezra thought that would have been an insult to God, since he was supposed to rely on God for protection.

After giving "the silver and the gold and the vessels" to the priests for safekeeping, the exiles continued their journey back to their homeland. Once they arrived, they made a few sacrifices, "twelve bulls for all Israel, ninety-six rams, seventy-seven lambs, and as a sin-offering twelve male goats". I suppose this is in agreement with Chapter 2, describing the first return to Jerusalem.

Ezra, Chapter 9

Chapter 9 still continued on from Ezra's perspective, though it's the last chapter to do so. The theme of this chapter was a major crisis - intermarriage with non-Jews, "For they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and for their sons. Thus the holy seed has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands, and in this faithlessness the officials and leaders have led the way." Ezra was horrified and ashamed of what his people had done, and led some of the faithful ones in a prayer to God asking for forgiveness and mercy. The whole prayer sounds a little pathetic - God, you're so great and merciful, and even though you punished us so harshly, we deserved it. We made you treat us that way.

And of course, the crisis shouldn't even be a crisis, but apparently the tribal mentality made intermarriage with outsiders a big taboo.

Ezra, Chapter 10

While Ezra was busy making a spectacle of himself "weeping and throwing himself down before the house of God", another of the exiles offered a solution, "So now let us make a covenant with our God to send away all these wives and their children, according to the counsel of my lord and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law." So Ezra got up off the ground and made everyone present swear that they would follow the plan.

Ezra called for a meeting of all the exiles, and attendance was compulsory - anyone who didn't show up would have "all their property ... forfeited". At the meeting, everyone was told what must happen. Because the problem was so big, they asked for some time to take care of it. Anyone who'd taken a foreign wife was to meet with the elders of their town at an appointed time, confess their sins, and then, apparently, boot out their wives and kids. Next came a sort of list of shame, so to speak - a list of all the men who had married foreign women.

This whole episode is just horrible. What type of values does this represent? First there's the xenophobia banning intermarriage. And then to make matters worse, once the intermarriages had happened and resulted in children, the solution was for fathers to abandon their families, because that was apparently the less sinful option than the possibility of being tempted by foreign religions. Just try to picture this scene in your mind - a now single mother carrying whatever possessions she might own, kids in tow, walking away from the man she had married, with a bunch of priests looking on disapprovingly to make sure that she actually leaves. If this portion of the narrative is true, it's heartbreaking.

There was an issue with the last verse. The NRSV stated it as, "All these had married foreign women, and they sent them away with their children." However, there was a footnote that the Hebrew was uncertain, and that the verse was taken from the apocryphal book, 1 Esdras. Not all translations translated it that way, however. The King James Version, for example, had "All these had taken strange wives: and some of them had wives by whom they had children." The NIV had a translation in spirit with the KJV, but a footnote with an alternate translation along the lines of the NRSV. At any rate, it's still a horrible story.


Well, last week I was glad to be done with Chronicles. It had gotten tedious and boring, and I was looking forward to whatever book was going to be next. However, once I actually started reading Ezra, I was disappointed. It wasn't particularly good. There were some decent parts, but it was hard to follow with the way it jumped around the chronology of what supposedly happened. And the last chapter was such a horrible story that it left a bitter taste in the mouth. And knowing that many aspects of the Historical books are more likely to have actually happened than the stories in Genesis or Exodus just makes the story that much worse. Oh well, next week is on to Nehemiah. I've already read most of it, and it is better than Ezra*, at least.

*No pun intended.

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.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Friday Bible Blogging - 2 Chronicles 31 to 2 Chronicles 36

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 36 are the final chapters of 2 Chronicles, as well as the final chapters of the combined First/Second Chronicles. Finally. Like I've written the past couple weeks, I was starting to get pretty bored with this book. While it does have a bit of extra information that wasn't included in Samuel and Kings, and there are differences in the stories, for the most part, Chronicles was very repetitious of the previous books. However, that caveat doesn't completely apply to these last few chapters. While there was some repetition, there were several significant differences that made these chapters rather interesting, particularly following along in the footnotes with the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NOAB). Plus, these chapters contained one of my favorite scenes from the Bible.

2 Chronicles, Chapter 31

Chapter 31 continued on with Hezekiah's reforms. First it was tearing down all the pillars and sacred poles devoted to other gods, along with the high places and altars (since worship was supposed to be centered around the temple). Then it was reorganizing the priests and Levites, then stockpiling stores in the house of the Lord. There was also quite a bit of information about which specific people had which specific jobs.

2 Chronicles, Chapter 32

The first part of this chapter dealt with the attack of Jerusalem by King Sennarcherib. But it was a bit different than the telling in 2 Kings 18 & 19. Other than just being shorter, Chronicles left out certain details, such as Sennacherib attacking other cities, and Hezekiah trying to appease him with gifts, before the attack on the capital city. As the NOAB notes, the attack on Jerusalem in Chronicles was "a complete shock". Further, the NOAB noted that "some parallel texts from the source text have been conflated to create a smoother depiction of the events."

After Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah prayed to God for deliverance, the Lord took direct action. He "sent an angel who cut off all the mighty warriors and commanders and officers in the camp of the king of Assyria." No working in mysterious ways here. Sennarcherib "returned in disgrace to his own land", and was killed by his sons once he got back.

The next few verses in the chapter went through a series of events in very rapid succession - Jerusalem was at peace and seemed to be doing well; Hezekiah became sick, prayed, and got a sign from God that he would become better; Hezekiah didn't respond like he should have and became proud; as punishment "wrath came upon him and upon Judah and Jerusalem" (again with the collective guilt); and finally Hezekiah repented and so God turned aside his wrath.

Next came a description of Hezekiah's riches, and some of the public works he accomplished, before he "slept with his ancestors".

There were two verses in this chapter that caught my eye in particular, and they actually happened to be back to back. The first was verse 18, "They shouted it with a loud voice in the language of Judah..." The NOAB pointed out that the 'language of Judah' was what would later become known as Hebrew, but apparently it wasn't called as such, yet. The second verse was 19, "They spoke of the God of Jerusalem as if he were like the gods of the peoples of the earth, which are the work of human hands." It was a unique bit of editorializing on the part of the Chronicler.

2 Chronicles, Chapter 33

Hezekiah's son, Manasseh, was the next to take the throne, and he was not a good king. He basically undid all the reforms his father had instituted, added on additional sins, and even put a carved idol in the temple. As punishment, God had the Assyrians attack Judah, and Manasseh was taken captive and delivered to Babylon in manacles and fetters. Manasseh prayed to God while there, and was delivered. Thus, he "knew that the Lord indeed was God," and he undid almost all the damage he had done previously. This whole story is completely at odds with 2 Kings. In that previous book, not only was there no attack and capture of Manasseh by the Assyrians, but Manasseh never repented for his sins, and it was these sins that were responsible for the eventual fall of Judah to Babylon and the Babylonian exile. Here in Chronicles, Manasseh doesn't seem so bad after his change of heart. The NOAB notes that this may be to make Manasseh "a model for Judean deportees living in other lands." It also presented a more hopeful message to the Judeans in the wake of the Babylonian exile - that they could be forgiven by God and start over. When Judah finally does fall in this book, it's due to Zedekiah's sins.

The NOAB did make a note that Manasseh's imprisonment in Babylon was possible, "because the Assyrians maintained a major presence in Babylon at this time," but also noted that the historical record indicated that Manasseh had been a loyal vassal to the Assyrians - i.e. that there would have been no reason for the Assyrians to act that way.

The chapter closed with a brief description of Amon's evil reign and subsequent assassination.

2 Chronicles, Chapter 34

Josiah succeeded Amon, and as in Kings, he was a good ruler. In the eight year of his reign, he began seeking God, and in the twelfth year, he began reforming the nation and purging the non-Yahweh religious paraphernalia. This included a mention of burning the bones of the false priests. Once he'd cleaned up the nation, he began renovations on the temple. This led to one of my favorite stories - while the priests were cleaning the temple, they found "the book of the law of the Lord given through Moses". They brought it and read it to Josiah, who was horrified at the punishments it detailed for all the sins Judah had committed. So, on top of all his other reformations, he had the Judeans pledge themselves to the covenant laid out in the book. Unfortunately, one generation's worth or repentance wasn't enough to save the nation, "my wrath will be poured out on this place and will not be quenched." But, for Josiah's sake, because he had been so penitent and humble, the punishment would be saved until after his death.

I guess the reason I like this story so much is because of the absurdity of it. I mean, here's the book of the law, supposedly one of the most sacred artifacts in Judah, written by Moses under the divine influence of the Lord, and it's mustering away in some forgotten corner of the temple covered in dust. It seems like it could be the plot of an Indiana Jones movie. The NOAB gives a more sober account of what the book might have actually been - most scholars think it was Deuteronomy, but it may have been "the entire Pentateuch (or an earlier version of it)."

2 Chronicles, Chapter 35

Josiah instituted a Passover celebration, in accordance with the instructions from the newly rediscovered book of the law. This was described in some detail, along with all the requisite animal sacrifice. One interesting aspect is verse 3, "He said to the Levites who taught all Israel and who were holy to the Lord, 'Put the holy ark in the house that Solomon son of David, king of Israel, built; you need no longer carry it on your shoulders." According to the NOAB, this was the only mention of the ark "in the Judahite monarchy". For as important as the ark was in earlier portions, it's interesting that it's been relegated to such a small role, here.

Another interesting aspect is verse 13. According to the NOAB, the correct translation of this verse is, "They boiled the Passover lamb with fire." The Chronicler chose this wording because Exodus 12:8 states that the lamb should be "roasted over the fire", while Dueteronomy 16:7 states that it should be boiled. (This looks to be another translation issue. The NRSV merely states cook in the Deuteronomy passage, while a few other translations I looked up actually use 'roast', but discussions such as this one indicate the 'boil' is the appropriate translation.) To try to harmonize these two different instructions, the Chronicler used 'boiled... with fire'.

The final portion of the chapter contained the story of Josiah's death. As in Kings, he fell in battle against Pharaoh Neco of Egypt. Unlike Kings, however, when Josiah first confronted Neco's forces, Neco sent emissaries saying that he was on a mission from God. But Josiah "did not listen to the words of Neco from the mouth of God", and so as punishment was killed in battle. As opposed to Kings, this at least gives some justification for his death, since God had previously promised him that "you shall be gathered to your grave in peace". I still find this odd that people in the Bible are just supposed to know who is a false prophet and who's truly speaking for God, even when false prophets like Pharaoh's magicians from Exodus could perform convincing tricks. In this story, there was no indication that Neco gave Josiah that he was being truthful other than his word.

2 Chronicles, Chapter 36

The final kings of Judah were given much less coverage in Chronicles than in Kings. According to the NOAB, this could be because the Chronicler had a shorter version of Kings from which to draw this history, or because, being so close to when it all happened, he didn't feel the need dwell on the details. So, it's a quick succession through Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, and Jehoiachin, who all had rather brief reigns, before spending a little more time on Zedekiah. As in Kings, Zedekiah was an evil king, and Judah was under the rule of Babylon at the time. And also as in Kings, it was Zedekiah's revolt against Babylonian rule that brought about such a harsh punishment from Babylon. But a detail unique to Chronicles was that King Nebuchadnezzar had made Zedekiah swear fealty by God. So, by revolting against Nebuchadnezzar, Zedekiah was also breaking an oath to the Lord. So, there was a divine justification in this book for the fall of Judah based on Zedekiah's actions rather than Manasseh's.

Chronicles did end on a more hopeful note than Kings. Once Cyrus became king of Persia, he issued an edict:

Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the Lord his God be with him! Let him go up.


The combined books of 1 and 2 Chronicles are somewhat interesting to study, if boring to actually read. The beginning of 1 Chronicles offered a very condensed summary of Israelite history, starting with Adam, and focusing on genealogy. As I wrote in my summary to those chapters, " It may have been valuable for being such a concise summary of genealogies, but it was about as exciting as reading a phone book." From there, it moved on to the stories covered in Samuel and Kings. In many ways, Chronicles was an abbreviated summary of the stories from those older books, but there were significant differences due to the Chronicler's bias/theology. In some cases, it was notable omissions. For example, David and Solomon were rather idealized in Chronicles, with just about every negative aspect of their characters stripped from the story. And the Chronicler wasn't too fond of Israel after the split with Judah, and considered its kings to be illegitimate, and so didn't give them any coverage except where it was relevant to events in Judah. But there were also additions. Some times, this may have been due to drawing from additional source material, but other times it seems that the Chronicler invented details.

As I've written before, 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. I can think of an analogy in American history. There's a lot that we know of what actually happened in this country, and multiple sources to draw that information from. And then there's the commentary and political theories on why it all happened. But even in American history, there are myths and legends, from stories like George Washington and the cherry tree, The midnight ride of Paul Revere, and the origins of Thanksgiving. There are even people who seem to be almost deliberately trying to rewrite history, such as claiming America was founded as a Christian nation, or that the Civil War wasn't fought over slavery. When all this can happen in the modern day and age with the advantages of the rigor and demand for evidence that exists in modern historical studies, it's easy to imagine similar goings on back in the ancient world. But it's fascinating to learn what parts might have been true to gain some insight into what that ancient world must have been like.

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.


Selling Out