Easter-Psalm 118

I live near Kansas City.  If you have been paying attention to the news at all, you know that an antisemite shot people in the parking lots at a Jewish complex in Overland Park, Kansas yesterday.  I am familiar with the area.  In fact I blogged about an exhibit I attended there a few years ago.

The crime happened as Passover approached–probably on purpose.  But it is also the Christian Holy Week leading up to Easter.  And Christians were the people shot.

Psalm 118 is the Psalm set to be read in many Churches on Easter Sunday.  Here is one line: “With the Lord on my side I do not fear. What can mortals do to me?”

Christians and Jews have a tradition of belief in the resurrection that comes from the Pharisees.  This belief is reinforced from the Christian point of view by the Easter event.  But many Jews already believed in resurrection.  In the face of persecution and murder, people of faith can hold the sentiment of those words from the Psalm.   God is beyond our mortality.  He transcends this life and death.  So what, indeed, can mortals do to us?

Blogging will continue to be light this week.  I am making a big overhaul of the Linux OS on my desktop.  Also this time of year brings me lots of church and family events.





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The Garden of Eden-beyond what you thought the story said

I just got my May/June issue of Biblical Archeology Review. This is a magazine that, whatever else you might say about it, is not stodgy at all. If they can find what might have been ancient Near Eastern porn, they will publish it. I think a lot of people read BAR just for the shocked letters to the editor.

In this issue Mary Joan Winn Leith reviews Ziony Zevit’s book, What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden. Zevit seems to want to read the Genesis story without all the layers of interpretation that generations of rabbis and Christian scholars have laid upon it. Also he seems to want to interpret the Garden of Eden story in a way that will allow feminists to give it a second look.

Leith titles her review, “Restoring Nudity”. That is a typical headline for BAR and one reason the magazine is so popular. So, of course, she would report Zevit’s interpretation of Genesis 2:21 that God fashioned Eve from Adam’s penis bone. Many animals have one. Humans do not. Genesis 2:21 would function partly as an explanation for this. So much for Adam’s rib!

Also interesting is Zevit’s interpretation of the term English Bibles once translated as “help meet” or “help mate”. Zevit suggests that it means “a powerful counterpart”. Woman is a powerful counterpart to man. It is an interesting suggestion that should get taken seriously.

Catholics and Protestants have gotten all caught up in the idea that what happened in the Garden of Eden was the Fall–the fall of humans from innocence and immortality. As John Milton put it, it was the loss of paradise. Jews have tended not to see it that way. The Eastern Orthodox also have had a different take. From the review, I take it that Zevit thinks the Garden of Eden story is about “how all humanity. . .obtained the knowledge to discriminate between the more and less preferable when making choices.”

I have not read the book, just the review. But I do think it would be good if more people could put aside some of the preconceptions that feed into simplistic and anti-scientific interpretations of Genesis. The Garden of Eden and other Bible stories may not be saying exactly what we have always thought they said.

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Lent-Psalm 31

On the Sunday before Easter there are options for the readings.

You can treat the day as Palm Sunday and stress Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It is a parade. People shout, “Hosanna”. In many churches there is a procession with children and others waving palm branches. All the readings go along with this mood.

The other option is to treat the day as Passion Sunday. The central event here is the crucifixion. Compared to Palm Sunday, it is a downer.

My practice, when I was a pastor, was to let the parade happen. It was not an unimportant event. It ideally would kick off the services throughout the week that follow Jesus to the cross. But after the parade, the palms, and the Hosannas; I would read the Passion Sunday scriptures.

My reasoning was that most of the people in church on Palm Sunday would not go to any other Holy Week services. The next time they were in church would be Easter Sunday. They would go from the palms and Hosannas to the lilies and trumpets. They would never touch on the betrayal and denial. They would never touch on the garden of agony and the arrest and trial. They would never touch on the mocking and abuse and death on Golgotha–unless you mixed Palm Sunday with Passion Sunday.

Psalm 31 is the Passion Sunday reading. Jesus quoted from this Psalm on the cross when he said, “Into thy hand I commit my spirit.” This is verse 5 of the Psalm. Jesus quoted it before his death according to Luke’s gospel. Also Luke has Stephen quote it as he is being stoned to death in the Book of Acts.

The original Hebrew poem represents the simple prayer of someone who had suffered greatly. He had been sick (vss. 9-10). People had told lies about him (vss. 18 and 20). Friends had dumped him (vs. 11). So it does apply to a situation like the passion of Jesus where there was personal betrayal as well as physical hurt.

Luke probably expected the readers of his passion story to know this psalm and to associate the words of Jesus with the whole atmosphere of its content.

The spiritual point for our sharing in Lent and Passion Sunday? The great contemporary Catholic psalmist, John Michael Talbot, puts it simply, “Father, I put my life in your hands.”

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Milgrom-egalitariamism and wrap-up

I could go on and on with Jacob Milgrom’s commentary on Leviticus. The book of Leviticus is full of details. I have chosen not to go into too many of them so that I can deal with the larger picture.

This was easier because Milgrom has several sections that deal with larger themes. But I have come nearly to the end of the issues that interest me enough to write about.

One thing I would rather he had not done is use the term “egalitarianism” to describe the program of Leviticus so far as social reform is concerned. I have disliked this term as a description of Israelite polity ever since I first ran into it in the works of Norman Gottwald. Egalitarianism is a belief in social and economic equality of all people. But Israel was hardly a society where this prevailed. I am pretty sure they did not even think in those terms.

Communists touted egalitarianism. But look at what their regimes were actually like. The same with labor unions or feminist organizations or liberal churches. They can never get rid of hierarchy. And their hierarchies seem to me to be worse for their attempts to disguise the power plays and the drive for status and position.

But what we do have in Israel–in the prophets and in both the P and H sections of Leviticus–is a respect for people at the bottom. I do not see that they are treated as having equal rights. There is a pecking order. But those closer to the bottom are treated with dignity. If you can’t afford to sacrifice livestock like cattle or sheep, there is still dignity in the sacrifice of doves or even grain. These sacrifices do not have lower effectiveness.

H made provision for the poor, but also for the resident alien. The reason, as Milgrom explains, for H making several laws about the resident alien is that for H the whole land was like a sanctuary. Those who lived in it could pollute it. This included non-Israelites who lived there. So some laws had to apply to them. But also some of the benefits of living in the land had to apply to them.

The priests had a sense of fairness. But this came from their theology. It was far from the rationals for fairness in Marx or John Rawls. Everybody was the property and slave of God. All the land belonged to God and all the people were tenants. This was the primary hierarchy. It did not prevent kings, queen mothers, priests, village elders,wise men and women, or heads of households from having a higher status than others. It did not mean that your family background or gender did not matter. But it did mean that all were equally under the care of God and must be treated fairly.

In sum though, the term egalitarianism as it has been used in social and political discourse since the French Revolution does not apply to ancient Israel. Their clan-based society was less hierarchical than many of the city states around. But the Davidic monarchy brought with it the power structures that you find in Egypt and the Phoenecian city states and imposed them over the clan structure. And, as far as I can see. even the old clan-based society did not aspire to be egalitarian.

What I have gotten from Milgrom’s work is a broader sense of the way the theory that he shares with Israel Knohl about the eighth century Holiness movement could be fleshed out. I am tending to agree with the theory. The prophets criticized the spirituality and ethics that took hold then. The priests behind the Holiness movement did not wholly agree with someone like Isaiah, but they responded to him by addressing the issues in their own way. The theory makes a lot of sense and accounts for a lot of facts.

Some of Milgrom’s ideas are challenging. The idea that being “cut off” from your people had to do with alienation from family after death is intriguing. But I’m not sure it is correct and neither is Milgrom. The whole notion about ancestor worship forming the background for some of the laws is a theory I had not run into before. I would need more information before I could affirm it.

Overall, I am grateful for this book and feel I know a whole lot more about Leviticus than I did before.

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Milgrom-Debt and global economics

Yesterday I tried to summarize some of what Jacob Milgrom in his Leviticus said about Leviticus 25 and the concept of the Jubilee years. He also attempted to bring this text into the contemporary world as relevant for today.

The laws about the return of land to the clan in Leviticus 25 are a mechanism to prevent wealthy creditors from taking the land and impoverishing the clan and individual members of it. Micah 2:2 and Isaiah 5:8 reveal that this was a problem in eighth century Judah.

So these laws fit with the thesis that H (the Holiness Code) came into being then in response to the critique of the prophets. Milgrom notes, however, that the prophets can only condemn these practices. H seeks to fix the problem of the growing disparity between the rich and poor.

Milgrom goes on to argue that, since this is still a big problem in today’s world, we might learn something from Leviticus that we could apply to global economics today. He has a section about the Polynesian Tonga people, who have a system similar to the Jubilee laws that works for them in today’s world. They are pretty isolated though. They are becoming less isolated now. So time will tell whether they can maintain their system.

He also tells about his participation in a “Jewish-Christian Symposium on the Jubilee” sponsored by the World Council of Churches in 1996. He says that debtor nations want the International Monetary Fund and the nations of the world to

–Cancel all their debts

–Grant restitution to the original owners for land use and resource depletion

–Stop the spoliation of indigenous people’s land and resources

–Universally raise wages to a subsistence level

The laws of Leviticus 25, he says, correspond to these things, because they call for the forgiveness of debts, the restoration of the land, and liberation from economic oppression.

We have to be careful, though, because there could be unintended consequences. For instance, if creditors have to grant remission of debt, why would they stay in business? Wouldn’t credit become impossible to obtain?

Milgrom says that the rabbis have struggled with this problem at points in Jewish history. In the first century C.E., Rabbi Hillel found that credit was drying up because of the requirement that debt be canceled in the Sabbatical year. So he allowed for a special court to substitute for the creditor in collecting the debt. Milgrom says such rabbinical solutions exemplify the kind of creativity that we would need to apply Jubilee law today.

I wonder about applying a system that was meant to prevent feudalism to a post-feudal situation.

Milgrom says that the demand for cancellation of debts corresponds to Leviticus 25. Yet, verses 15-16 are not among the “selected texts” that he comments on in more detail. Those verses say according to the NIV:

You are to buy from your countryman on the basis of the number of years since the Jubilee. And he is to sell to you on the basis of the number of years left for harvesting crops.

When the years are many, you are to increase the price, and when the years are few, you are to decrease the price, because what he is really selling you is the number of crops.

Remember that these verses present a solution to a problem of debt. What the buyer bought was not the land, but the use of the land for the years remaining until the Jubilee. It was like leasing a car. You don’t really own the car. You pay to use it until the lease is up. If you owed, say, $100,000 that you could not repay and there were 5 years left until the Jubilee, then someone could pay you $20,000 a year for the use of the land over those years.

In the end the debt would be paid. It was not actually forgiven. In the example above, you had to somehow live without the use of the land for five years.  But the land got returned to you and your clan. The point of the law was to prevent families from being permanently cut off from the land originally allotted them. But the creditor did get paid.

Deuteronomy 15:1-2 has a requirement for either the relaxation or cancellation (depending on what the Hebrew shamat means) of debt every seven years. This is a law against long-term debt. So our 30 year mortgages and life-time college loans wouldn’t pass muster. And any society has to face the reality that circumstances may make debt (especially long-term debt) noncollectable. Hence, bankruptcy laws. The seven-year law looks like another instance of Israel setting up a periodic event to take care of something that is likely to happen anyway.

In regard to the 50 year Jubilee, I was once told by a financial planner that about every 50 years a mass remission of debt actually has taken place throughout history. Sometimes this has happened by going off a standard like the gold standard. Sometimes by the devaluation of currency. Sometimes by inflation that allows you to pay back your debts with money that is worth a lot less than the money you originally borrowed.

Still, the general rule in the Bible is that people should meet their obligations.

Milgrom’s main point seems to be that Leviticus 25 provides a kind of hope for solutions to inequities in the contemporary world, even if we will need considerable creativity to find and apply them.

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Here is another entry on my reading of Jacob Milgrom’s commentary, Leviticus.

Leviticus 25 contains the laws of Jubilee. The word “Jubilee” probably refers to the ram’s horn mentioned in verse 9 as being sounded to announce the 50th year. Compare it with Gabriel’s trumpet that announces the resurrection and the end times in the New Testament.

It meant the redemption of debts, the freeing of slaves, and the return of forfeited land to the original families entitled to it. Milgrom shows that amnesties of this kind occurred in other ancient Near Eastern cultures. But they occurred when the burden of debt became so great that it threatened the economy–kind of like the recent bail-outs in the United States. In Israel, in contrast, the Jubilee years came about on a sabbatical calendar. They were periodic, not occasioned by the economy.

Many have claimed that these laws are Utopian and never actually were enforced in Israel. Milgrom argues that there is evidence that the laws were largely observed, although not enforced in post-exilic Israel. They were not enforced because there are no enforcement clauses in Leviticus 25. There are no penalties proscribed for violations. These laws had moral force only.

Yet Milgrom believes that there was a real effort to follow the law.

He spends some time arguing that the law requiring land to lie fallow for a year was not that much of an agricultural hardship.

I think he is right about this. Unirrigated farmland needed to lie fallow on a rotating basis anyway. On the farm I grew up on we did what was called strip farming. Alternating strips of land were left as stubble in alternating years. So it is quite possible that half the land in Israel was left unfarmed every year anyway. In the sixth year, they may have farmed all or most of the land so as to produce a surplus to cover the Sabbath year. (More and more modern farmers are using chemical techniques to get around leaving part of their land unfarmed. We will have to see if this works in the long run.)

There is a big difference between the way others saw property rights and the way the Hebrew Bible saw them. In Egypt, for instance, all the land belonged to the Pharaoh. In other cultures as well, the Crown was ultimate owner of all land. Israel, however, went through a long period when there was no king. There was a village-based culture. The land around the village belonged to the clan. But Yahwists also believed that God was the king of Israel. So the Crown did own the land in the sense that God was the Crown.

This became more complicated when there was a human king. The story of Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21) illustrates this. Naboth did not believe he had a right to sell his land, even to the king. Leviticus 25:23 states the principal. The land belongs to God. So you do not have the right to permanently sell it. The secondary ownership of the land was with the clan, not the individual. Although Leviticus, according to Milgrom, shows an evolving trend toward private property.

The effect of the property laws was to prevent feudalism, where rich people owned vast estates and most of the people were serfs. The land, according to Leviticus, had to keep going back to the clans who were originally allotted land.

Two other things for today:

First, I am struck by the difference between walled cities and villages in verses 29 and 31. There was one law for Jerusalem and a different law for the countryside. To me, this means that for the social situation outside Jerusalem in the eighth century, we should pay careful attention to Micah. He was from the village culture. Isaiah and Jeremiah were Jerusalem prophets.

Second, with regard to slavery, the modern view of human rights just was not a factor. An Israelite could not be somebody’s slave, because he or she was God’s slave. There was no appeal to our view that we belong to ourselves.

In Egypt the Crown owned the land, but he also owned you. So farmers farmed the Pharaoh’s land and, in the season of the Nile flood, they were conscripted to work on the Pharaoh’s building projects. This may have been the situation of the Israelites (Exodus 1:14). Except for the rigor of the labor required of them, the Israelites were in the same situation as all subjects of Pharaoh.

Their freedom came when they transferred from being owned by Pharaoh to being owned by God. This is essential to the whole biblical concept of redemption. So the notion of property rights about land gets treated in the same chapter of Leviticus that deals with people as property. The overarching view is that both real estate and people ultimately are the property of God.

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Lent-Psalm 130

Psalm 130 is the psalm  reading in the Revised Common Lectionary for the 5th Sunday in Lent this

Psalm 130 is actually a very optimistic psalm. But it starts out with a cry from the depths. We have the phrase, “the depths of despair.” That is pretty much what the psalmist means when he says he is crying out from the depths. Literally it means he is in deep water. Another psalm starts off with the singer saying that the waters have come up to his neck. It was a common Hebrew metaphor.

His despair is because he needs mercy. If God were keeping a record of his faults, there would be too many of them and he would be overwhelmed. He asks rhetorically who could stand if God did that.

Wait a minute! This Psalm is saying God doesn’t do that? He is not making a list of who is naughty and nice? Many people figure that is exactly what God does. They figure God is keeping track of their sins so that after they die the record can be used against them in the court of final judgment.

But no. With God, says the singer, there is forgiveness. Now in the context of the Hebrew Bible, what this means is that there has been provided a system of sacrifice and an opportunity for repentance. God has provided a way for sins to be covered so that they do not have to be held against you.

The optimism of the psalm reaches its height in vs. 5 and 6. These are hard to translate because they are more like ecstatic cries than cool, grammatical statements.

I am expecting the Lord– My soul is anticipating– His word gives me hope– My soul for my Master– More than watchmen for the morning– Watchmen for the morning.

Notice that I did not use the word “wait” in this interpretation. Most translations say his soul waits for the Lord. But nothing in the Hebrew requires the idea of waiting rather than expecting, anticipating and hoping. These are all different words in the original. And, anyway, there is nothing I hate more than waiting in line or waiting for an elevator or waiting in traffic. So I avoid the word if I can. And there is nothing in the Hebrew that really requires it. The idea comes from the mention of watchmen. Watchmen on the night-to-morning shift do wait for the dawn. But the point here is their anticipation–not that they sit around and wait.

The psalm ends by calling upon Israel to hope in the Lord. His habit is mercy. His power to redeem is abundant. He will redeem Israel from all sins.

I think of the contrast between this psalm and the warnings of some prophets. Those prophets were more pessimistic. Even though God might someday redeem, the immediate threat was that the people’s sins would catch up with them and lay their land to waste. The psalmists seem to think more individually and the prophets more nationally. But Psalm 130 mentions the nation in its last verses as the focus of God’s redemption.

So it seems to me the psalmist stresses the merciful nature of God to a nation that may have felt there was little chance of redemption. They are in the depths. They cry out for mercy. And this Psalm reminds them of the loving and merciful nature of God.

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