Unfortunately, I listened to this on Audio CD in the car and was unable to take even cursory notes so what follows is a list of impressions it made up...moreUnfortunately, I listened to this on Audio CD in the car and was unable to take even cursory notes so what follows is a list of impressions it made upon me and "things" that stuck in my mind.
* As a whole, the book looks at the relationship between violence and religion. Carroll argues that religious practice developed because humans had to reconcile the necessity of violence (if only in killing animals to live) with the pangs of conscience that arose within them. That need to sacralize violence only became more important after the Agricultural Revolution c. 12,000 BC, which saw the rise of sacrificial cults. (He interprets the story of Abraham nearly sacrificing Isaac as a myth justifying the end of human sacrifice, for example.)
* But religion is like a game of whack-a-mole. It doesn't eliminate violence, it channels it into socially acceptable actions. It's in this context that he discusses the development of Christianity in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, setting it against the near constant state of revolt that afflicted Roman Judaea from about 60 to 138, when Bar Kochba's rebellion was savagely suppressed. The Jewish Christians were eliminated along with their nonbelieving Jewish cousins (the Romans not being big on doctrinal distinctions) and the Gentiles and Hellenized Jewish converts of the Diaspora carried on Jesus' legacy. The disastrous consequence (in Carroll's argument): Two millennia of anti-Semitism.
* I wish he would have spent more time on a notion he raises in discussing America's relationship with Jerusalem and that's the infantilization of religion as an unintended consequence of the US's separation of church and state. This is common to Western civilization as a whole as the apparent separation between knowledge and faith becomes more pronounced but is most evident (according to Carroll) in America.
* I was also fascinated by his discussion of how the notion of not sacrificing the youth of a nation (his interpretation of Abraham & Isaac, see above) was turned on its head to justify just that, particularly in the context of the First World War, Zionism and the current Islamist reliance on suicide bombers.
In the end, I enjoyed the book (though not enough to track down a physical copy - not at this time, anyway). Philosophically, Carroll and I are often on the same page, and his idea of "good religion" mirrors my own. But I think that's its problem when it comes to speaking to a broader audience. Carroll can be very persuasive in his interpretations of what the Bible is "really" saying but - in the end - he can muster no greater justification for them than others whose interpretations differ. I'm reminded of Stephen R. Prothero's God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World--and Why Their Differences Matter, where that author argues that the "God" of the world's major religions is not the same entity. And even within a religious tradition, "God" means different things to different people. Carroll's "God" and his "religion" will appeal to certain people but will remain unconvincing - if not downright blasphemous(1) - to others.
Recommended if only because of the provocations Carroll offers to our considered understanding of religion. In that regard, he's particularly good for the ancient Israelite material and the European Reformation; he's relatively light, however, on Islamic and doesn't even consider non-Western Christian movements.
(1) In his final chapter, Carroll gets all New Age-y and mystical, writing statements of seemingly profound wisdom that turn out upon reflection to not say much at all. And - to the dismay of Christian readers, at least - rejects the need for salvation entirely. This last part is the weakest section of the book, no question.(less)
“(T)he truth of the Bible is never obvious, but always in need of further thought and study.” (p. 244)
Jennifer Wright Knust’s Unprotected Texts: The B...more“(T)he truth of the Bible is never obvious, but always in need of further thought and study.” (p. 244)
Jennifer Wright Knust’s Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire should terrify fundamentalists of any stripe. It should make even mainstream and liberal believers squirm in their seats for if her logic is carried to its end, her argument undermines the idea that there is a “Word of God” that is a meaningful, universal guide to human conduct. In her conclusion, the author emphasizes that readers of the Bible bring their own desires to the reading, and impose their own interpretations on the texts. To illustrate her point, she writes that Paul in his letter to the Galatians didn’t care about the historical or social context of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar. He needed to find a justification that Gentiles didn’t need to adopt Jewish law. And he found it after some creative theologizing that reduced Ishmael and Isaac to symbols for those who lived “according to the flesh” and those who lived “according to the promise” (p. 242).
Knust’s conception of what a believer’s proper relationship to scripture deserves to be quoted in full:
“Nowadays, the sense that reading scripture is a creative, imaginative act has too often been lost, despite the creativity it took for New Testament writers and early Christians to claim that the law and the prophets are, when read correctly, all about Jesus Christ. Paul, Matthew, Irenaeus, and Origen came to the Bible with convictions about what should be found in its pages and, employing a variety of interpretive methods, they found what they wanted. But, unlike many contemporary readers, they did not attempt to hide their interpretive work from their audiences. Instead, they sought to persuade their readers that their interpretations were valuable by revealing the principles they brought to bear on the texts they read, whether they were arguing that Gentiles should come to God as Gentiles, that Jesus’s birth was miraculous, or that the church is the best arbiter of divine truth. They did not assume that quoting a few choice verses out of context could serve as sufficient proof of what the entire Bible says and therefore of what God says as well.
“It is time for us to admit that we, too, are interpreters hoping to find our convictions reflected in biblical texts, and have been all along. Looking to the Bible for straightforward answers about anything, including sex, can lead only to disappointment. When read as a whole, the Bible provides neither clear nor consistent advice about sex and bodies, as the material presented in this book demonstrates. If one set of biblical books interprets polygamy as a sign of God’s blessing, another set argues that celibacy is the best option for the faithful. If one biblical writer condemns those who engage in sex before marriage, others present premarital seduction as central to God’s plan. Just about every biblical commandment is broken, and not only by biblical villains. Biblical heroes like Abraham, Moses, and David also violate the commandments of Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus, and Jesus is represented radically reinterpreting earlier scriptural teachings, including commandments regarding divorce. When it comes to sex, the Bible is often divided against itself.
“It is therefore a mistake to pretend that the Bible can define our ethics for us in any kind of straightforward way; such an interpretive strategy will only lead us astray while also preventing us from taking the Bible as seriously as we should. Even more tragically, a refusal to acknowledge that we are active interpreters might make is seem as if the only possible choice is between accepting the Bible as literally true or rejecting the Bible altogether. Christians should not and need not be asked to make this choice. Since neither the Bible nor a particular interpretation can limit what particular stories and teachings must mean, it is up to readers to decide what a biblically informed and faithful sexual morality might look like. If the New Testament writers were willing to admit that they were constructing their theological and moral perspective with biblical texts but not because of them, then what is preventing readers today from adopting the same strategy? The Bible provides neither a shortcut to the real work of interpretation nor a simple solution to the important task of figuring out what it means to be human and yet in love with God.” (pp. 244-45)
Where is the Bible’s authority if you can find nearly any interpretation reflected somewhere within it? Why is Fred Phelps’ interpretation that “God hates fags”* less authoritative than Chris Levan’s that “It (scripture) simply asks if the relationship is functioning according to principles of justice and dignity? Does the partnership demonstrate mutual trust and compassion? Is so, it is blessed by God” (website Religious Tolerance.org, accessed July 2011)?
This is a problem I have with the conclusion, not with the rest of the book. The bulk of this work is devoted to what the Bible says about sex, desire, marriage, gender, purity, and other issues. It’s lively and well written and will provide plenty of ammunition to those who like to debate such matters with conservative religious friends and relatives (however fruitlessly).
* Or the less obnoxious interpretation that says God may not hate homosexuals but he certainly doesn’t think their behavior is OK.(less)
I need to reread this short (112 pages) book before I put pen to paper but if you can't wait for the reviews, trust me and read this remarkable interp...moreI need to reread this short (112 pages) book before I put pen to paper but if you can't wait for the reviews, trust me and read this remarkable interpretation of the Exodus myth. _____________________________________________
I haven't done justice to The Tables of the Law in my review below but I hope that I've been able to convey enough of its brilliance to entice you to read it. _____________________________________________
Thomas Mann wrote The Tables of the Law (Das Gesetz in the German) in 1943 as part of an anthology of stories (each addressing one of the Ten Commandments; Mann was supposed to tackle the first). The collection was born in response to an almost certainly apocryphal meeting of Hitler and some of his closest advisors. At the meeting, the Führer blasted Christianity as a Jewish sect and promised to free people from its slave morality: “We are fighting against the most ancient curse that humanity has brought upon itself. We are fighting against the perversion of our soundest instincts. Oh, the God of the deserts, that crazed, stupid, vengeful Asiatic despot with his powers to make laws! That slavekeeper’s whip!... It’s got to get out of our blood, that curse from Mount Sinai.” (p. 114) While the other nine entries are forgotten, Mann’s contribution rises above the limitations of its birth and explores the origins of Western morality and the power of one man’s mind and passion to effect change.
The story, no surprise, is based on the “Book of Exodus” and Mann opens with:
“His birth was irregular, and so he passionately loved regularity, the inviolable, commandment and taboo.
As a young man, he had killed in a fiery outburst, and so he knew better than those with no experience that to kill may be sweet, but to have killed is ghastly in the extreme, and that you should not kill.
His senses were hot, and so he yearned for spirituality, purity, and holiness – the invisible, which seemed to him spiritual, holy, and pure.” (p. 3)
Moses is the son of Pharaoh’s daughter and a Hebrew slave she takes a fancy to one afternoon. The fruit of her passion is put out in a reed boat to be fortuitously found by her servants. Pharaoh’s daughter sends young Moses to a good Hebrew family to be raised but later she takes him back and educates him as an Egyptian, though the boy chafes at this and eventually returns to his father’s people. But even among them he can’t find what he’s looking for. So, fleeing the consequences of his murder, Moses travels to Midian in the Sinai and finds there “Yahweh,” an invisible god, one among many the Midianites worship. After long days in the desert, “shaken by inspirations and revelations” (p. 4), Moses comes to identify Yahweh with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He returns to Goshen and begins preaching with the goal of leading the Hebrews out of Egypt to a land apart where he can fashion them into his image of holiness, or God’s, depending upon how you understand what’s happening. Mann is ever ambiguous about who Yahweh is – a chimaera of Moses’ imagination or a deity working through him.
What follows is the rest of “Exodus” up to the point where Moses brings the Ten Commandments down from the mountain. In it, Mann doesn’t care whether Moses is a crazed mystic or whether Yahweh is real and speaking to him; Mann’s point is that humans – in their natural state – are depraved. He delights in describing how the Hebrews will lie with their sisters, defecate anywhere they feel like it and eat whatever looks edible until Moses imposes his rules and regulations upon them (vigorously enforced by Joshua and a band of young men). These rules set the Hebrews apart from others and instill a sense of morality absent in all other nations. Even when a Hebrew breaks one of Yahweh’s injunctions, he knows he’s done something wrong and feels guilty. By making his father’s people obey, Moses gets them into the habit of living a nondepraved life, which becomes second nature over time:
“(T)he forbidden things soon came to seem dreadful to them – at first only in connection with the punishment; but that punishment soon led to their branding the deed as bad, and at its commission they felt bad themselves, without even thinking about punishment.” (p. 74)
“And even if it is only outward courtesy to do this and kiss your fingertips, nevertheless the gesture will instill in your heart something of what you should fee toward your neighbor.” (p. 77)
The inspiration for the Ten Commandments comes from Moses’ belief (or Yahweh’s) that the Israelites need a pithy, compact list of the basic guidelines so he goes up Mount Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights and carves. First, though, he must invent a way of writing the commandments. He rejects hieroglyphs, cuneiform and the primitive syllabary of the Sinitic tribes, and creates the Hebrew alphabet, knowing that the versatility of these letters will allow everyone eventually, regardless of language, to read about Yahweh’s commandments and rise above their depravity:
“So with his head afire, Moses, borrowing loosely from the people of Sinai and using his graver, tried out on the rocky wall the signs for the babbling, banging, and bursting, the popping and hopping, slurring and purring sounds, and when he had artfully assembled the distinctive signs together – lo and behold, you could write the whole world with them, whatever occupied a space and whatever occupied no space, what was made and what was made up – absolutely everything.” p. 96
Moses comes down from the mountain with his alphabet and his commandments to find the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf and destroys the tablets in a fit of rage. He then returns to the heights where he has an argument with Yahweh (or with himself) about what to do with these people. Moses finally convinces God (or himself) with this argument:
“Just imagine, Holy One: If You now kill these people as You would a man, then the heathen, on hearing their cry, would say: `Bah! There was no way the Lord could bring these people into the land promised to them; He wasn’t up to it. That’s why He slaughtered them in the desert.’ Is that what You want the peoples of the world to say about You? Therefore let the strength of the Lord grow great and by Your grace show mercy for the people’s transgression.” (p. 108)
Mann brings his tale to a close by reiterating the purpose of the Law:
“Thus the earth shall be the earth once more, a vale of misery, but not a field of depravity. Everyone say Amen to that!
And they all said Amen.” (p. 112)
The Tables of the Law is a marvelous and subversive look at the bases of Western morality. Mann suggests that our notions of decency, courtesy and ethics are the fruit of a man similar to Hitler in his mania and violently enforced by a band of fanatic believers who bear a disquieting resemblance to the Sturmabteilung (aka Brown Shirts). But he also suggests that this may be unavoidable: Only by holding to an impossible ideal can humans develop a moral capacity and the ability to create and live in a (reasonably) just and humane society.
This is the first Mann that I’ve read though I’ve known about the man since my sophomore year in high school. Janet – a freshman I had a serious crush on – carried around a copy of Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family while Drama Club rehearsed for that semester’s play. I don’t have an urge to rush out for copies of Death in Venice or The Magic Mountain but on the basis of this book, I might read them (and other works) at a future date.
In any case, I have no compunctions about enthusiastically recommending The Tables of the Law to all and sundry.(less)
If I were better at time management, I'd have had this reviewed by now but I have put pen to paper (finally) and should have a r...moreFor my myriad fans :-)
If I were better at time management, I'd have had this reviewed by now but I have put pen to paper (finally) and should have a review of this ultimate volume of my religion-themed reading quest soon.(less)
Savina Teubal’s book Sarah the Priestess is a part of that latter tradition – A serious attempt to disentangle the historic and prehistoric threads that went into the make up of the stories found in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. In this case, the traditions behind the first matriarchs of Genesis: Sarah, Rebekah, Leah and Rachel. This book does not argue against biblical theology, nor does Teubal want to. Instead it joins that large – and fascinating – genre that attempts to place the historical events of the Bible in context, in the process revealing just how unreliable the document is for reconstructing the world of the ancient Middle East.
Teubal’s argument is, briefly, this:
1. The stories of Abraham/Sarah and the first patriarchs of Genesis (Isaac and Jacob) reflect a transitional period between a prehistoric culture and religion where a Goddess was the predominant deity and women enjoyed far more economic and social importance, and a true patriarchy where (at best) women were relegated to permanent minority status or (at worst) were the chattel of their male relations. (Their survival in the anomalous form that comes down to us is explained by the fact that when the post-Exile redactors finalized the Hebrew Bible, the essential narrative was too sacred to tamper with extensively.)
2. Sarah was an oracular priestess in the tradition of her homeland of Ur, whose Goddess-centered religion can be traced back to prehistoric and protoliterate sources found all over the Middle East.
3. Sarah was the nonuterine brother of Abraham (same father/different mothers). In light of subsequent Jewish consanguinity laws, her marriage to Abraham can only be understood in terms of a strictly matrilineal society where the biological input of the father was irrelevant.
4. There is strong evidence to suggest that Sumerian/Akkadian priestesses were celibate, suggesting that Abraham and Sarah’s marriage was so too.
5. Consequently, Isaac is the child of a hieros gamos, or “sacred marriage,” perhaps with Abimelech of Gerar.
6. Teubal doesn’t claim that Rebekah, Leah or Rachel were priestesses but she does argue that they represented a fading Goddess-centered religion and matrifocal marriage customs that were only completely stamped out in the post-Exilic Jewish community.
Probably the greatest strength of this book is Teubal’s deference to the limitations of her sources. Beyond their mere existence, we don’t know what these Goddess-worshipping cultures believed, or the rituals they performed and their meanings. For example, Teubal points out that it’s pretty certain that oracular priestesses in the southern Mesopotamian tradition were celibate outside of the sacred marriage ritual and not expected to have children but that this was not so in the Ugaritic tradition.
I don’t have the background to competently assess the basis for Teubal’s argument beyond its plausibility (and the trust that her Ph.D. in Ancient Near Eastern Studies is not from a diploma mill) and in that regard I think she makes a very good case. In any event, she certainly proves that the Hebrew Bible is not a reliable source for historians attempting to put together Canaanite and Mesopotamian society 4,000 years ago (however inspired it may be for the religious).
For the interested, I would recommend this book.(less)
In the page before the Table of Contents, Charlotte Gordon quotes the affirmations of God’s uniqueness found in all three Abrahamic faiths (Deuteronom...moreIn the page before the Table of Contents, Charlotte Gordon quotes the affirmations of God’s uniqueness found in all three Abrahamic faiths (Deuteronomy 6:4, the Apostles’ Creed and Koran 2:255). Gordon’s book is a perfect example of Robert Wright’s argument in The Evolution of God by Robert Wright that every generation reinterprets its scriptures in light of social, economic and political contexts. In this instance, Gordon offers a rereading of the Abrahamic origin myth that stresses the similarities between Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and the irrationality of disputes among these faiths. (In the light of recent history, it should be obvious why some would see the need for this type of reinterpretation.) She also reads the story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, and their descendants+ as a story reflecting a dysfunctional human family learning to cope and to accept each other.
Unfortunately, I am not the audience for this book. As a nonbeliever, I have no need to reinterpret the Abrahamic myth nor am I convinced by Gordon’s explication of Abraham’s clan as an archetypal human family. I give it two stars not for any serious lack of writing ability or interpretative skill but because it didn’t address personal interests or offer any radical new insights. This did not, however, make it an uninteresting or useless read. I think the value in a book like this, particularly to believers, is in its reinterpretive value. Recently, I reviewed Dan Diner’s Lost in the Sacred Why the Muslim World Stood Still. There the author advised Muslims to become more secular, creating distinct lay and religious spheres in life as has developed in Western culture. Leaving aside the problems that’s caused for the West, I argued that it was silly and counter-productive to counsel such a course of action, and that a better strategy would be to read scripture in a way that accommodated modernity, stressed cooperation and retained the “sacred” in mundane life. Which is precisely what Gordon is attempting to do here. I am unqualified to judge how successful she is in the light of other readings but this shouldn’t be dismissed in the effort to reconcile so far intractable disputes.
I gleaned five points Gordon wants to make about the importance of Abraham’s story:
• God’s command to Abraham “to go forth” reflects the emergence of the self (cf., Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind). • God’s relationship with Abraham’s family, particularly Hagar, is the first time he establishes a personal relationship with worshippers. • “Hagar’s story offers an alternative creation myth to that of the Romans and Israelites: one that is based on freedom, not slavery, and one where there is no need for brutality or rape.” (p. 137) • When Hagar names God as “El-roi” (Genesis 16:13), Gordon interprets it as “the one who sees me.” The traditional interpretation is “the god seen in a vision.” If Gordon’s interpretation is the more correct one, she can argue that it’s the first instance of a deity taking notice of one of his worshippers. • Gordon argues a very idiosyncratic interpretation of Hagar’s and Ishmael’s expulsion: It was a scheme concocted by Hagar and Sarah to protect Ishmael from Abraham, and shows that there was a warm, friendly relationship between the two women. (pp. 226-27)
Well…maybe. It’s an imaginative interpretation, and shows just how flexible the Bible can be but I did have some problems with it:
• Number one is that Gordon assumes that the God of Abraham is the modern concept of God. For some believers this may be perfectly acceptable but the historical evidence is pretty clear that there were no monotheists in 1700 BC (at least none whose stories have survived). Assuming an individual named Abraham actually existed, he was at best a monolatrist. • Which brings me to my second objection: Gordon ignores the manifest evidence that the Abraham story is a synthesis of now forgotten myths edited by post-Exile Jewish priests. • She emphasizes Abraham’s “wildness” despite the fact that he and Sarah both came from some of the oldest cities in Mesopotamia, and has a very simplistic vision of the relationship between ancient urban centers and the hinterlands. • She also makes odd interpretations in other matters. For example, referring to Paul’s “Letter to the Romans” as an attempt to convert Romans to Christianity when he was writing to an established congregation of Roman Christians – they were already believers. In Genesis 18, she argues that God is a fourth presence and not one of the three men who approach him at Mamre. Both my reading and others I’ve seen, include God among the trio. While it’s possible to interpret the words that way, it’s decidedly not the usual one and needs more justification (is the ancient Hebrew clearer?). • Gordon strays into heresy on page 190 when she suggests God is not all-knowing. This isn’t a bad thing in my view but if Gordon is trying to convince believers, she loses them here. • Discussing Sodom and Gomorrah, Gordon makes an astonishingly shallow interpretation of Lot and his daughters, whom she characterizes as “valley girl” types (my wording) who missed the opportunities for shopping and flirting denied them in the hills where the family fled. (p. 203) (And, yes, she uses the words “shopping” and “flirting.”) • Related to my first point above, Gordon accepts the historicity not just of Abraham et al. but also the events of the story (i.e., Sarah’s seriously post-menopausal pregnancy). • Lastly, Gordon indulges in a lot of speculation about the principals’ motives and thinking that’s ill supported.
Even if I were a believer, I think I would have a problem with some of the spin Gordon contrives even though I sympathize with her motives. Overall, I found Gordon’s reinterpretation interesting if flawed and would be interested in knowing what believers of all three faiths make of it; I definitely would recommend it
+ For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to use Abraham and Sarah throughout rather than Abram and Sarai for the pre-Covenant period.
++ The following has no direct relation to Gordon or her exegesis but in the course of reading this book I became curious about the chronological relationship between Noah and his putative descendant Abraham. So I began with Genesis 11:10-32, which traces the line of Shem to Abraham’s birth. Taking Shem’s birth as Year 1, I came up with the following genealogical tree:
You’ll notice that Shem, a survivor of the Flood, was still alive when Abraham came screaming into the world. Even more remarkable – Noah was still kicking around. In fact, he would hang on until the 450th year after the Flood. The most remarkable “fact” that emerges is that Eber, Shem’s great-grandson and Abraham’s great-great-great-great-grandfather survived Abraham by 30 years.
Does this mean anything? Probably nothing more than a caution against blindly asserting the inerrancy of the Bible. After all, what need would God have had to reassert his power when survivors of the worldwide – WORLDWIDE – Flood were still breathing in Abraham’s day?(less)