Scribes-writing for performance

I have challenged myself to think about what the most significant idea was that came from my reading in 2016.

My answer is the notion in David M. Carr’s Writing on the Tablet of the Heart that ancient scribes wrote to facilitate the oral performance of material.  You will see this covered if you look at my posts for April 2016.

He compared the work of scribes to written music.  It wasn’t meant to be read privately or read from the manuscript as a kind of reverse dictation.  Rather, the scribes wrote to provide a base and give cues to someone who would creatively perform the piece for an audience.

This is very thought-provoking in regard to the Bible.  One thing I agree with him on is that writing was likely used in Israel earlier than some scholars credit.  Some of this was just administrative and clerical.  But priests also were scribes.  And they  used writing to convey longer codes and  stories with religious meaning. However, it would not help us to think of this writing in modern terms.  Readers did not use these works the way we use books today.

So the original idea of the Documentary Hypothesis of the Pentateuch does not fit with the way writing was used.  It could not have been a cut-and-paste job.  Yet we still have to account for the very powerful set of facts that underlie the Documentary Hypothesis.

Back in the mid-90s Carr published Fractures in Genesis as a contribution to understanding the Pentateuch.  He talked about a first temple period Proto-Genesis consisting of non-Priestly and Priestly traditions, which was reworked into our Genesis after the exile under Persian sponsorship.

I do not know if he still holds to that.  Carr has written a new book about the composition of the Hebrew scriptures, The Formation of the Hebrew Bible: A New Reconstruction.  I haven’t read it and won’t until the price comes down.  But according to reviews I have read, he offers a very constructive new approach.  See here.

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Judah and Israel as dual kingdoms before Saul’s death

I have only a few days before we leave for a winter vacation. Then I won’t be blogging again until February.

Meanwhile, I have a few notes from some things I worked on last year.

Joel Baden’s work on the historical David has a sequence of David’s rise that mostly makes sense. David served Saul as a mercenary, then led a failed rebellion. This forced David into the Judean back country as leader of a gang of outlaws. There he barely survived until he made an alliance with the Philistine king of Gath. Then, after Saul was killed in battle, David created the state of Judah and had himself declared king at Hebron.

But I see some evidence that David may have started his kingdom at Hebron while Saul remained king of Israel.

In 2 Samuel 2:10 we learn that Saul’s son, Ishbaal, reigned over Israel for two years before his assassination The next verse says that David reigned over the house of Judah for seven and a half years from Hebron. Most people reading this probably jump to the conclusion that David was recognized as king of Israel right after Saul’s death and continued to stay at Hebron for another five and a half years before he moved his capital to Jerusalem.

But that is not what the text says. For seven and a half years David was only ruling over Judah. 2 Samuel 5 makes it sound as though soon after Ishbaal’s death the elders of Israel anointed David king over all Israel and he began his thirty-three year reign over Israel.

“At Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months; and at Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and Judah thirty-three years” (v. 5 NRSV emphasis added).

So it seems David’s reign over Judah (and not all Israel) extended for five and a half years after Ishbaal’s death.

One way around this would be to say that Ishbaal did not take power for some years after Saul’s death. General Abner was the king-maker and might have had to take territory back from the Philistines before Ishbaal even had a kingdom.

Another solution, toward which I presently incline, is that the Bible obscures the fact that David was proclaimed king at Hebron several years before the battle of Aphek and Saul’s death. In other words, Judah was already a separate Hebron-based kingdom.

The narrative in the primary history of Israel adhered to the idea that all twelve tribes had existed since Jacob and that they were always associated with “all Israel”. But there is a lot of evidence that the tribe of Judah came into existence by bringing together several groups like Calebites and remnants of Simeon and Reuben at the time of David. So the editors of the primary history made Judah a part of Israel even under Saul. This fit their 12-tribes narrative, but it probably doctors history.

In my view both 2 Samuel 2:10 and 2:11 come from accurate sources concerning Ishbaal and David. But putting them together gave a distorted sequence as though Ishbaal’s death took place two years into David’s reign. Instead, it may be that the accounts of Saul making expeditions into the wilderness to capture David reflect his attempt to deal with a rival who had already established a separate kingdom and made alliances with his enemies.

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I usually find pots boring, but. . .

This is a spectacular artifact found recently at Yahud in Israel near ancient Lod, which had settlement since about 5600 BCE. However this dates to the Middle Bronze Age, 1800 BCE or so, before Israel emerged around 1300-1200. This dates to just before or at the beginning of the Hyksos period in Egypt. Some chronologies would put the first Patriarchs in about this period. I think about the “household gods” Rachel took from Laban’s house (Genesis 31:19).


It appears that this is an ornamented jug. We don’t know about any religious significance or who the thinker-like figure is supposed to be. Gilad Itach, director of the excavation, is quoted:

According to Itach, “It seems that these objects are funerary offerings that were buried in honor of an important member of the ancient community. It was customary in antiquity to believe that the objects that were interred alongside the individual continued with him into the next world. To the best of my knowledge such a rich funerary assemblage that also includes such a unique pottery vessel has never before been discovered in the country”.

Read more here.

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Death, pets, and the eternal home

Last week we had to do something that many pet owners have to do. We had to euthanize a well-loved pet. Our cat had been with us for more than 15 years. He was a kitten when the terror attacks in 2001 happened. A frolicking kitten helped take the edge off the pain of those days. He also meant my wife did not have to come home to an empty house during most of that decade, when I was away doing interim work for weeks at a time. (I used to joke that the cat thought I was just the old Tom who came around once in a while). Then, just a few years ago, he comforted us when we went through cancer, surgery and chemo-therapy.

He had developed kidney failure, a common problem for older domestic cats. He had reached the end-stage. The day we had to put him down sucked.

When the church had a week-night children’s ministry, I would ask for prayer requests at the end of the activities. Most of the prayer requests were about pets. This combining of spirituality with concern for pets would seem trivial to some.

I grew up on a ranch where we had a very utilitarian attitude toward animals. Still tough cowboys were shaken when they had to put down a dog or a horse.

In the Bible the attitude toward animals was usually also utilitarian. Animals were central to the economy in biblical times. They provided meat, milk, and wool. Sometimes they provided transportation or protection.

In his parable confronting King David, Nathan told of a poor man who had a pet sheep:

But the poor man had nothing except for a little lamb he had acquired. He raised it, and it grew up alongside him and his children. It used to eat his food, drink from his cup, and sleep in his arms. It was just like a daughter to him (1 Samuel 12:3 NET Bible).

Although this is part of a parable, it reflects the fact that people bond closely with animals. If this did not sometimes happen in real life, people would not have understood the parable.

In our own time pets have become more important to adults. This is partly because of the smaller size of families. This allows resources to be left over for the care of pets. Pets fill an emotional need that probably did not exist in large, crowded families. Also, as we live longer, pets provide companionship for empty-nesters with far-flung families and for widows and widowers.

The death of pets has some spiritual meaning. It confronts us with mortality and prepares us to deal with the griefs that come to us all. Some of the condolences that came to me through social media contained the idea that I could hope to be reunited with my pet in the afterlife.

I am agnostic about this, but would like to believe it.

Some, like the ancient Egyptians, sent animals along with you when you died to serve you in the next life.

C. S. Lewis speculated that animals with close associations with humans grew spiritually closer to us just as we, through our devotion, grew closer to God. Perhaps, he thought, this would qualify some animals to be with us in the hereafter.

As I understand it, the reason this is not widely believed in Christianity has to do with the idea of the immortal soul. Humans have one. Animals don’t. However, the idea of a soul separate from the body seems weak on biblical grounds. Immortality is not based on having a soul with this immortal quality. It is based on God being powerful enough to renew his bond with whole people beyond death–in other words, resurrection.

So I don’t believe either humans or animals have immortal souls. What matters is the ability of God to renew us after death.

Jesus (according to Luke) talked about an eternal home populated by the friends we have made in this life (Luke 16:9). The picture seems to be that after death we may be welcomed by all those we have reached out to and benefited in this life. (I have not had much of the delusional wealth Jesus talks about in that verse, but I hope I have made friends in other ways. For instance, I would like to imagine myself being welcomed by the hundreds of people and their families that I have tried to help at the time of death.)

If we will be welcomed by those we have made our friends, then perhaps some of those will be the animals we have befriended.

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 year-end reflection after about six years of blogging

What interests me is the foundations of the Judeo-Christian tradition.  The claim that the God the Israelites called YHWH revealed himself to them and made them his people draws me to the Hebrew Scriptures.  The claim that this God further disclosed the divine self to all people in Jesus, is key to my Messianic Gentile faith and interest in the New Testament.

However, these claims involve history.  We know more about history now because of archeological discoveries and the application of science to the texts and artifacts of the past.

Although I have a few degrees, I am not an academic.  I was a preacher and an administrator of churches and charities before I retired.  My reading now, which I report on in posts on this blog, is usually of books and articles by academics.

To people of faith academics seem like skeptics.  Often they are.  But even if they are not, those who teach in institutions usually have to adopt a kind of functional atheism in their approach to history.  They can deal with evidence about ancient Israel or first century Christianity in human terms.  But the actual claims about events like the Exodus or the Resurrection and the idea that God revealed himself, they can often only deal with as opinions or theories.

This has some advantages.  Commitment to religious dogma can skew scientific results.  And it can cause people to isolate themselves from people who think differently and only interact with those who share their own religious commitment–or only interact negatively with others.  So I have trouble trusting the results of people who can’t stand back from their religion in their research.

In writing about this I sometimes probably seem like a skeptic.  It is true that I don’t believe in the inerrancy of Scripture or that God guides the church to always get it right.  About the people of history, like David or Paul, I am irreverent and willing to see the human side and even judge them as wrong.

However, I adhere to most classic Christian beliefs.  I do not automatically discount divine providence or miracles.  The Exodus and the Resurrection, I believe, happened. There is historical evidence in both cases that something happened.

But I come to history as someone who has experienced answered prayer and divine presence in my life and the life of the church.  I also come as someone who grew up closer to the forces of  nature and nature’s God than many people today.  So, in some ways I suppose I project God’s present activity back into history.

God’s presence, though, is elusive.  Tragedy has touched my life and that of many people I have worked with.  The death camps happened.  Senseless wars happened. Faith doesn’t necessarily produce happiness or free us from care.

But Life exists.  It comes from somewhere.  We don’t give it to ourselves.  Evolution doesn’t change that.   Cruelty, death and war don’t cancel out the Source of Life.  So underlying Christian and Jewish faith is the presence of God as the Giver of Life who is stronger than death.

I learn a lot from people who approach scripture with no faith or with their faith bracketed for academic purposes.  But, for me, faith is not an opinion or a theory.  It is a lived experience of gratitude.

Even though I come to the scriptures with the question of what really happened, I do so with the understanding that what is really happening today is that Life is still breaking into the world.

Posted in Seasonal, Spirituality, Theology | Tagged | 1 Comment

Mead-the mother of meaning

Each year around Christmas it has become my habit to read something from Walter Russell Mead’s Yule Blog. Mead usually writes about politics, especially geopolitics. But he is a Christian. And each year he reflects about the meaning of Christmas.

He has an essay about Mary this year. His essay is “The Mother of All Meaning”.

He notes that Protestants often shy away from lifting up Mary. That is a Catholic or Orthodox distinctive practice. He says he does not expect Southern Baptists to start making pilgrimages to Lourdes or substituting the rosary for Wednesday night Bible study. But he does think Protestants should reflect more on the classical Christian title for Mary: Theotokos. In English this becomes Mother of God. This title stands on what orthodox or confessing Christians believe about the person of Jesus. He is divine and Mary is his mother.

So Mead says of Mary:

She was unflinching and courageous. She followed God, not social convention. She was ready to be snickered at and pitied by the gossips of Nazareth and to risk her relationship with Joseph to respond to God’s call. She followed Jesus to the cross and watched her son die; her loving presence would have been one of the few comforts he had during that final ordeal. She was ready to respond to the unexpected, to have her life wrenched out of a comfortable and traditional groove when God showed her that he had something else in mind.

This is the kind of woman to whom God came looking for a mother for Jesus. No other human being in the history of monotheism (other than Jesus) was called to this kind of intimacy with God. And if Christians take their own theology seriously, our Lord and Savior was shaped by her genes and her character. Mothering is serious business, something {I} think about often as Christmas follows Christmas without my own dear mother at the holiday feast. Jesus would not have been who he was if he had had another mother or no mother at all. She put a lot of herself in her son, leaving an imprint on his character that is visible from a distance of 2000 years. And she didn’t just mark him. She marked, marks us. Our civilization for better or worse has been shaped through its complicated, many-sided encounter with the man she raised and the faith that grew up around him. We are all sons and daughters of Mary today, whether we acknowledge it or not.

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Another suggestion about Khirbet Qeiyafa

The problem about the Elah Valley fortress Yosef Garfinkel has excavated at Khirbet Qeiyafa is that the people of Israel and Judah were still very close to their hill country village phase. Thus it is unexpected that they would build big administrative centers and public buildings around 1,000 BCE.

Saul seems to have done without big buildings. He typically made his headquarters under a tree (1 Samuel 14:2 and 22:6). It probably was no accident that they buried him under a tree (1 Samuel 31:13). It was where he was comfortable.

When David wanted a big building he imported skilled builders from Phoenicia.

As I thought about this yesterday, I saw something I had not considered or seen anybody else consider. Perhaps the outpost at Khirbet Qeiyafa was built by somebody else and captured by either Saul or David.

Navdad Na’aman thinks the site was Canaanite. He has some decent arguments. The structure is similar to some Canaanite sites. Canaanites seem to have not eaten pigs as much as you would think.  So the lack of pig bones at the site does not tell against this theory.

Yosef Garfinkel has proposed that it was an administrative headquarters for David like the ones at Hebron and Jerusalem.

But Jerusalem was not built by the Judeans. David captured it and used it as his own fort, adding some buildings and the tent shrine.

Maybe something similar happened at Qeiyafa. Maybe some Canaanites city-state had built an outpost there to curb the Philistines. If Saul took it, it could have been his base in the Elah Valley as 1 Samuel 17 implies.

But if David took it later, it would solve the problem of why David had a fortress over against his ally, Gath. He didn’t build it. It served David more as an administrative center than as a bulwark.

One of the features of Qeiyafa is that there are what seem like little sanctuaries next to each gate. The sanctuaries have uncarved standing stones in them. Perhaps the Israelites replaced Baal idols with these to comply with the taboo against graven images.

One of the problems is that ancient texts do not give us the name of a well known city or encampment at this location. Garfinkel has discovered two gates so he says the place is Shaaraim mentioned in 1 Samuel 17:52. Shaaraim means two gates. However, many have trouble with this partly because they consider the battle in 1 Samuel 17 unhistorical.

The most popular other suggestion is that the place is Gob (2 Samuel 21:18-19), a place from which David’s mighty men operated.

These place names did not mean anything to later generations. 1 Chronicles 20:4 associates these battles with Gezer, presumably because it was a known place.

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