Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Musings on the Law

The first words recorded in the Bible as spoken to Man, "be fruitful and multiply", are sometimes called a commandment, but this is misleading. They are a blessing. For some, there is a greater blessing prepared in this world already, but this does not diminish the first blessing.

It is said, sometimes, that there are "613 Commandments" (or some such number) in the Old Testament. Some of them are famous, such as
____ the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. 3 Thou shalt not have strange gods before me. 4 Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing, nor the likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, nor of those things that are in the waters under the earth. 5 Thou shalt not adore them, nor serve them: ____ the Lord thy God, mighty, jealous, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me: 6 And shewing mercy unto thousands to them that love me, and keep my commandments.
It's a bit wordy, and includes command, revelation, and warning. It is a command, in that it outlines a necessary principle of human life in general: we owe our very being (reflected in deliverance out of Egypt) to the foundation of all being, who exists-by-nature; and so primacy of worship belongs to the same Creator, not to be supplanted in our devotion by any creature (though we may be glad of them for their instrumentality in our present life, or delight in them as rejoicing the senses, so far as that is good), and especially not any of our creatures — "graven images".

Another expression in the imperative follows soon after those famous ten,
And if thou make an altar of stone unto me, thou shalt not build it of hewn stones: for if thou lift up a tool upon it, it shall be defiled.
We might call this a command, but it certainly isn't a principle of human life in general. Firstly, it is already a conditional sentence, opening with "if". Secondly, it seems to come with an explanation, if one whose poetry remains obscure to me. (It occurs to me that, today, dedicated altars in Catholic churches all incorporate hewn stone reliquaries; hewing them is the most practical means of keeping a chalice level.) I've a sneaking suspicion that the intent is to keep not only hand-made idols away from worship, but to separate even the crafts of image-making from worship, for the moment, though I'd rather have a clear explanation...

These are the judgments which thou shalt set before them. If thou buy a Hebrew servant...
the translation chosen here is "judgment", and the whole of what follows is of quite a different class of Law than the Decalogue; it outlines what might today be called jurisprudence and sentencing guidelines. Like the liturgical law "if thou make an altar..." it is a series of conditionals. And every judgment is invoked only with particular manifest evidence.

The condition in the very first judgement raises an interesting question! Who, at the contextual moment, owns a Hebrew servant and might sell? If there are any in the present company, those servants will be free in the Seventh year. That is, this chapter opens, not with the sanctioning of slavery, but with a recipe for delivering captive Hebrews out of Pagan servitude! The ransomed Hebrew indeed owes his life and eventual freedom to whoever paid his ransom, and the law emphasizes this — though, note that it doesn't say anything against early release of a ransomed servant.

I think it is a mistake to suppose that God intended the sentences of Sinai to be understood by Moses as his last word to the People of Israel on the subject; and therefore neither did He intend Israel to think the Law was finished. The modern tendency to find this Law unbearably harsh ("If a man curse his father or his mother"... but what is meant by "cursing"?) I think speaks of a tacit assumption that this Law was given in a vacuum — that because Israel are currently sitting in the Desert they have no proper law or legal habits, and that they also have no problems that the Law is needed for to solve. But on the contrary there is a ... joke? ... about laws: if there is somewhere a statute explicitly forbiding, say, the blindfolding of a Cow on the Highway, and a specified fine for it, one must suppose that at least two people have at some point blindfolded cows on highways.

Or, let me put it this way: according to tradition, the Sinai legal Maxim "an eye for an eye" was written by the same human hand as Lamech's lament, "Sevenfold vengeance shall be taken for Cain: but for Lamech seventy times sevenfold;" (and, of course, we Christians all remember how many times to forgive our brother?). The Law given at Sinai may well be (and, I suggest, should be read as) the very first iteration of legal restraint in Israel's history. Do ransom captive Israelites, and retain their debt in servitude, but no more than six years. Yes, in the Desert you are wandering and cannot hold prisoners but must chastise crime, nonetheless don't get fancy or messy with execution— I do shudder to think it, but today probably the "cleanest" execution available is "firing squad", and... well, that's what stoning-or-arrows were, (c.f. "David and Goliath") and it was supposed to be done quickly. Anyways, read this way, supposing a progression from seventy-times-sevenfold vengeance to strictly equal vengeance... it's not that this, in itself, has to culminate with the Sermon on the Mount, but that once you get there, it is a most fitting conclusion.

But neither is this the end of thinking about this Law, these "judgments".

Thursday, May 21, 2015


Since we're in the general mode of "hunt the snark and kill it",

Whatever the scribes' intentions, there has been a tiny noise (a "ping", perhaps? or a twig snapping?) that in Gaudium et Spes the Two Greatest Commandments are quoted as one single commandment of two prongs, and that since that time in various Documents of lesser weight, similar citations even-less-careful are made (for instance, omitting the Greatest); I'm quite sure this, in itself, is Not A Big Problem — firstly because there is no indication that the scribe intended to propose error as such, secondly because there is as yet no indication that anyone wishing to teach error in this matter either uses or refers to (or even reads) G et S, and lastly because to absolutely fix this it would suffice to publish an updated version of G et S using a plural, with an annotation on the earlier version. This is also, incidentally, why modern official texts are littered with footnotes: so the reader can go back and check what's up with whatever --- also one of the many indications that I'm not an official of any sort.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

the "Lying Spirit"

... or, "who you gonna believe?"

Here is the core of the text in question, and one possible reading of it, up until Micheas breaks the spell. The end of the story is that Achab is told plainly that he will be overthrown in battle, Achab goes forth to battle, and there is overthrown.

Enter Micheas, enter nunzio
13 And the messenger, that went to call Micheas, spoke to him, saying: Behold the words of the prophets with one mouth declare good things to the king: let thy word therefore be like to theirs, and speak that which is good. 14 But Micheas said to him: As the Lord liveth, whatsoever the Lord shall say to me, that will I speak.
Exeunt, et introibunt ad regem
15 So he came to the king, and the king said to him: Micheas, shall we go to Ramoth Galaad to battle, or shall we forbear? He answered him: Go up, and prosper, and the Lord shall deliver it into the king's hands.
... and who told him to say that? Was it the Lord? Assuredly not, for recall: "the messenger [] spoke to him : '[] let thy word be like to theirs...'"; perhaps Micheas is speaking sardonically, perhaps he is so far nonplussed at being consulted over the King's own advisors, when he certainly already knows that the King likes him not; we don't know, but the King does not believe him. If Micheas is lying, he's not very good at it!
16 But the king said to him: I adjure thee again and again, that thou tell me nothing but that which is true in the name of the Lord. 17 And he said: I saw all Israel scattered upon the hills, like sheep that have no shepherd: and the Lord said: These have no master: let every man of them return to his house in peace.
Only now has Micheas begun to speak in prophetic register. Achab repeats his hesitation --- the one from before I started quoting --- before Micheas continues in parable
18 (Then the king of Israel said to Josaphat: Did I not tell thee, that he prophesieth no good to me, but always evil?) 19 And [Micheas] added and said: Hear thou therefore the word of the Lord:
I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, and all the army of heaven standing by him on the right hand and on the left: 20 And the Lord said: Who shall deceive Achab king of Israel, that he may go up, and fall at Ramoth Galaad? And one spoke words of this manner, and another otherwise. 21 And there came forth a spirit, and stood before the Lord, and said: I will deceive him. And the Lord said to him: By what means? 22 And he said: I will go forth, and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets. And the Lord said: Thou shalt deceive him, and shalt prevail: go forth, and do so.
The whole picture of celestial intrigue is what God told Micheas to relate, which is how you can tell that it's not a superficially-literal narrative. To whom is Micheas speaking? To Achab. Who has deceived Achab? Achab himself. For now he has heard his "prophets" speak encouragement, and Micheas speak of his downfall, and warn him that his "prophets" have spoken lies, yet which does he choose to heed? If the tale Micheas tells of the lying spirit before the Lord is superficially true, if the literal meaning of this scripture is a celestial conspiracy against Achab, then what can be the purpose of the Lord's own prophet revealing it before the trap is closed? Rather, it is a parable, imploring Achab to humility, warning that he has surrounded himself by liars and sycophants, that if he go up to Ramoth Galaad it is the Lord Himself will defeat him.

And Achab goes up to Ramoth, not because he has been deceived by any extraordinary act of God, but because God has told him the truth and Achab has despised it.

Monday, May 18, 2015

"Literal" meaning

for we handed on to you what we also received...

That is, I'm not making this up: the "literal" meaning of scripture, the most basic and oldest true sense isn't identically the first meaning that would spring to your mind or mine, but the one the insipired author had in mind. That is, it helps to know the author and something of their character. For instance, the author of Exodus is pretty-universally held to be the same human person as the author of Genesis (and of Genesis 1-3 in particular). Anyways, the literal meaning of such a passage in Exodus as
And when [Moses] was in his journey, in the inn, the Lord met him, and would have killed him
need not be that the Lord sought to kill Moses. Could the Lord seek to kill Moses and fail? And it certainly doesn't mean there was a Prancing Pony by Barliman Butterbur in Northwest Sinai. The literal meaning of the next,
Immediately Sephora took a very sharp stone, and circumcised the foreskin of her son, and touched his feet and said: A bloody spouse art thou to me. And [the Lord] let [Moses] go after she had said "A bloody spouse art thou to me", because of the circumcision.
need not be that the Lord absolutely requires the mutilation of all the man-children of Abraham, whether of root stock or grafted on. Indeed the First Council (of Jerusalem) clarified that what are called the works of the Old Law (from circumcision through Temple Sacrifice) do not bind the Body of Christ, and indeed may not be fitting for all its members, even those works that are still gramatical.

Whatever the literal meaning, here is a plain narative actually present in the sequence: while Moses had accepted his vocation at least so far as returning towards Egypt (and so putting himself in danger's way), yet he had not formed such an interior faith as he would choose to join his own children to the children of Israel; and yet, somehow, his wife the stranger had sufficient faith to supply what was wanting in Moses, and, most amazing, this did satisfy the Lord. We can later consider (i.e., I won't just now) the relative necessity of circumcision itself, whether it is an essential part of this text or if it only means inclusion in Israel, and all that. It would be sufficient, however, to understand the text, that the Lord required of Moses that he raise his own children as Israelites, and Moses (or Sephora) understood that this must include their circumcision.

(We might well wonder by what grace Sephora was able to "immediately [find] a very sharp stone", which must have been a very sharp stone indeed, though inns are supposed to be well-supplied houses...)

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Did The Lord Lie to Abraham?

This is no longer the first of a possible series of reflections provoked by a blogger friend's blogged expressions of concern on the goodness of acts imputed to God in the text of the Old Testament. The previous was "not Perspicuous". Like that, this is not (of course! --- indeed no more than the Imagined Dialogue) a definitive answer, because I certainly haven't got any definitive answers, nor authority to define. But our friend's questions, how they are provoking! (In a good way)

One of the strangest episodes in a very strange book begins:
After [Isaac was born, and Ishmael with Hagar sent away, and a truce made with Abimelech], God tempted Abraham ...
If we are to read with faith, believing that this God of Abraham is the God, creator of all things and times, omniscient and eternal, we cannot plainly read "tempting" as testing, not in the sense of trying it out to see what happens as if God didn't know what happens; God doesn't change his mind about Abraham after the trial that follows, but He may very well change Abraham's mind about things. So, to this strange test:
“Take thy only begotten son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and go into the land of vision: and there thou shalt offer him for a holocaust upon one of the mountains which I will show thee.”
“Only-begotten”, eh? strange expression, to name the younger of two men of the same father. I think St. Paul had something to say about these two...

The nitpicker in me also wants (though I cannot trust this wish) to take the Rheims translators as particularly inspired, when they interpolate the adverb "for", which is ambiguous in the Latin they took for their source.

There are a few more miniature pictures along the way — the servants are dismissed, the boy is loaded with wood for burning, and "where is the lamb?" ... "God will provide". The resolution comes:
And [the Angel of the Lord] said to him: Lay not thy hand upon the boy, neither do thou any thing to him: now I know that thou fearest God, and hast not spared thy only begotten son for my sake.
Well, look at that: the Angel of the Lord doth seem to contradict me, though I think actually not1. Again: "Lay not thy hand upon the boy... [thou] hast not spared thy only begotten son for my sake."

So, I'm going to use some words now meant to appeal to the theological sense of any well-catechized Catholic: Abraham has worked a sign which, being accepted by God does accomplish what it signifies. The prescribed form and matter being brought together, it could remain, in Earthly terms, a sign without any lasting visible change; nonetheless, God did both accept the whole sacrifice, and returned Isaac into his father's care.

However, the question: did God lie to Abraham, or deceive him? First: did God ask of Abraham anything He didn't want? It would seem that Abraham believed, until the Angel told him different, that what God asked indeed included the physical sacrifice of Isaac's body; but, as God is plainly content with a sacramental and unbloody sacrifice, we must conclude that God indeed never wished it. Then the question must be refined: did God intend Abraham's misapprehension? Putting it another way, could Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac be accomplished without Abraham thinking he would have to kill the boy? I think of parents today who do make bloodless sacrifice of their children, for instance when a child enters religious life... it is far from being a perfect parallel, I do realize, but worth attention. And another thing: the otherwise-very-odd Abraham (whatever is he doing with his wife and the local princes?), drawn out of Babylon into Philistine lands, just might himself have learned something that had locally been forgotten.

But at the very least, I do think we can read the text without supposing God to have worked any deception, though He does seem to have let the truth take some time to develop in his servant's mind.

1: As long as we are on the subject of "now", I want to mention two things: the English is written, "now I know" in the present tense, the Latin is "nunc cognovi" — or, a tad more literally, "now I have known". It doesn't say that God ever didn't know, but the event, the choice made which was known DID have a definite time, and God's knowing it is definitely in relation to that moment of choice, so if there was ever a time when it would be sensible for God to say "now I know", it is at that time. I have some other related thoughts about imagined time-travellers and the justice of one A. H. (styling himself "fuhrer") surviving as long as he did... for another time perhaps.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Bible Text is Not Perspicuous

"If there be ten just men, I will not do it", the Lord said to Abraham.

I don't want to put into the Bible what is not and has not been there, but merely as a mathematician who likes to play strange games, I want to point out that God said to Samuel,
Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys,
and the tale continues
And Saul smote Amalec from Hevila, until thou comest to Sur, which is over against Egypt. And he took Agag the king of Amalec alive: but all the common people he slew with the edge of the sword. And Saul and the people spared Agag and the best of the flocks of sheep and of the herds, and the garments and the rams, and all that was beautiful, and would not destroy them: but every thing that was vile and good for nothing, that they destroyed.
It does not say that they found chidren or infants to put to death. They found "common people" and a King, flocks of sheep and beautiful plunder. It does not say they found any children or infants.

I like to say such things, sometimes, as "all my natural sisters live in Antarctica", or "all my pet octopodes can fly". They're perfectly true, as well, though I wouldn't advise voyaging to Antarctica in search of my natural sisters. It is entirely consistent with the sparsity of the text that all the children and infants of Amalek were indeed slaughtered, and that all of them were innocent at least as preceding the age of reason, and that no innocents were slaughtered. I haven't much gusto for even so prosaic a reading, and you would think that someone in Saul's army might notice a complete lack of children (had there been such lack) and mentioned it, such that it might have come down into the scripture; mentioned, unless, of course, it was part of a pattern they took for granted.

And a complete lack of children within Amalek is indeed consistent with particular violences they were reputed for: sterile thrills, practices that would widely proliferate sterilizing disease, and sacrifice of infants themselves.

I don't want to say that this is what actually happened, but I do want to point out that, if we are to read Deuteronomy through Kings N as an account of actual military campaigns, this is an important possible circumstance to consider.