1. Today, for Black History Month, I watched two movies. The first was Kennedy, a 1983 miniseries that starred Martin Sheen as President John F. Kennedy. (No, he didn’t remind me of President Bartlett on this movie, for he used a thick Bostonian accent, which Bartlett didn’t have.) The second was Boycott, a 2001 movie about the Montgomery bus boycotts, led by Martin Luther King, Jr. Jeffrey Wright (whom I know from Lady in the Water and W) played King. The lady playing Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) was hot, and she and Wright got married after working on this movie.
What’s interesting to me is this: FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (a major figure in Kennedy) believed that King was part of a Communist plot, yet King’s movement is now a part of America’s heritage, representing America’s values of freedom and liberty. Hoover thought that King was a troublemaker stirring up race wars. Yet, there are times when disruption may be necessary, when injustice must be challenged.
King was committed to doing so non-violently, and that led to conflict between him and other African-American leaders. And non-violence was a tall order. That’s what I got out of the movie, Boycott. Bayard Rustin (who, like Stanley Levison, was an ex-Communist) counseled King on non-violence. When Rustin first met King and saw King with a gun in his pants shortly after his house had been firebombed, he asked King if he truly believed that non-violence worked. King had to take a hard look at himself. I’m not sure if a person should take non-violence that far—to the point of not protecting one’s family. But loving one’s enemies is a noble idea, which King tried to put into practice as he challenged evil.
King has often been criticized as a theological liberal. Maybe he was. But he said something, which I heard on the miniseries King and twice on the movie Boycott: if his movement is wrong, then Jesus Christ was a dreamer, and did not come to earth. What’s he saying here? That the effectiveness of non-violence in ending evil shows that Jesus was divine and knew what he was talking about? That God was on the side of the Civil Rights Movement? It may have been rhetoric. But non-violence takes a lot of faith, especially when a person is being attacked and threatened with death.
2. In Ancient Israelite Religion, I read John Holladay’s “Religion in Israel and Judah Under the Monarchy.” Two points that stick out to me are these: According to Holladay, the government-sponsored cults were largely aniconic, meaning they didn’t use images of people or animals. They obeyed the commandment against images! This includes the site in Dan, which Jeroboam built. This, even though the Hebrew Bible depicts the Israelite monarchies as blatantly idolatrous. In my opinion, what has survived at Dan may not have icons, but foreigners could’ve taken the calf-idol because it was made of a precious metal, gold, and that’s why it wasn’t found. So perhaps I Kings 12 is accurate on Jeroboam constructing an idol.
In an endnote on page 291, Holladay argues that Israelite female figurines were cult objects, not children’s playthings or talismans used to assist in childbirth. His reason is that they resemble cult artifacts in Philistia and Phoenicia. Those who contend that they were dolls may believe that ancient Israel by-and-large worshipped YHWH alone. I don’t entirely know Jeffrey Tigay’s position on the female figurines, but he is a scholar who views ancient Israel as largely monotheistic (see Tigay and Khirbet Qieyafa?, Judges and Intertextuality, Is Mullen a Minimalist?).
Holladay resembles Tigay because he thinks that the official cult was aniconic—that it was doing what the Bible believes is the “right thing,” even if the Bible doesn’t give it much credit. Yet, Holladay maintains that the popular cult included idols. Holladay sees a parallel with Japan, where people adopt a variety of religious practices. The Israelites could have been Yahwistic, while also relying on other gods and goddesses to get them through life’s struggles.
3. In Reading Between Texts, I read Stuart Lasine’s “Reading Jeroboam’s Intentions: Intertextuality, Rhetoric, and History in 1 Kings 12.”
Lasine addresses the issue of Jeroboam’s golden calves. (This issue again!) In the ancient Near East, the calf was the god’s throne, on which the god stood. Plenty of scholars have argued, therefore, that I Kings 12 misunderstands what Jeroboam was doing: Jeroboam wasn’t telling the people to worship the golden calves, as if they were divine, such scholars argue. Rather, the calves were God’s throne when he visited the sanctuary, much like the mercy seat over the Ark of the Covenant.
But Lasine refers to the possibility that Israelites without such insight could’ve resort to fetishism, treating the calves themselves as a divine sort of object. After all, the bronze serpent that Moses made to demonstrate God’s power (Numbers 21) became an object of idolatry, which was why Hezekiah destroyed it (II Kings 18:14).
This reminds me of the movie Moses, which starred Burt Lancaster. Aaron emphatically denies that the golden calf is God, but he tells the Israelites that it’s a symbol of the people. Yet, before you know it, the Israelites are dancing around the calf and treating it as a magical sort of object.
What was wrong with fetishism? Do superstitions influence people to take their focus off of God, to assume that someone else is in control of events?
4. On page 157 of Ethnic Myths and Pentateuchal Foundations, Theodore Mullen talks about motifs in the Joseph story. He mentions two Egyptian tales: The Tale of Two Brothers (thirteenth century B.C.E.) and the story of Sinuhe (twentieth century B.C.E.).
In the Tale of Two Brothers, we meet Batu and his brother, Anpu. Anpu’s wife makes advances on Batu, but Batu refuses. She then accuses Batu of making advances on her. Consequently, Anpu wants to kill Batu, who runs away. There are then a series of fantastic details, which you can read about here and here. But the motif of a wife making advances on someone who refuses, then turning around and accusing him of attempted rape appears also in the Joseph story (Genesis 39).
In the Story of Sinuhe, Sinuhe is an important official in the government of the Pharaoh, but he’s afraid after he hears treasonous remarks about the Pharaoh’s recent death. So he flees to Canaan and gains the favor of a chief there, becoming his son-in-law and raising little chiefs. Sinuhe grows old in Canaan and gets opportunities to prove his courage (which helps him because of his cowardice in fleeing years before). But he desires to return to Egypt, his homeland. The Pharaoh welcomes Sinuhe when he goes back home.
We see this in the Joseph story: Joseph goes to a foreign country and becomes an important official, marrying into the royal house. But he wants his bones to be placed in Canaan, the Promised Land, his true home.
Mullen says that the authors of the Joseph stories were probably only familiar with the “stock” genres of their day. In my opinion, his implication is that they did not borrow directly from the Egyptian tales, so the Joseph story is not old. Mullen then makes the point that the Joseph story’s account of a foreigner prospering in the court of the king resembles Daniel 1-6, which is (at the earliest) exilic. Mullen once again appears to promote an exilic date (or later) for the Pentateuch’s stories.
I agree that the authors of the Joseph story may not have directly borrowed from these Egyptian tales. The Joseph story shares details with them, but there are also sharp differences. Maybe concepts such as exile from home or bad women were common in those days. Moreover, for those who believe that the Joseph story is historical, such things can happen in real life, not just in art!
But I don’t think we can dogmatically assert that the Joseph story is exilic because it resembles Daniel 1-6, when its motifs existed long before the Daniel story. Yet, Mullen may do well to ask: When would those motifs become relevant to the Israelites? The bad woman idea could fit a lot of contexts, but the notion of being away from one’s home could speak especially to Jews in exile.
5. In Middle Platonists, on page 84, John Dillon talks about Chrysippus’ (third century B.C.E.) view on fate, which is Stoic. For Chrysippus, we just think that we have free will and that things happen to us by chance, for we don’t see the chain of causes that God sees. I’m not entirely sure what this means. It reminds me somewhat of Jonathan Edwards’ idea that our choices had to have been caused by something, which pushes us to decide one way and not another (meaning there’s no true free will). I’m not absolute on this, but I do think that who we are influences what we do, and that who we are has been shaped by what’s happened to us.
Or is Chryssipus saying a God’s-eye perspective would reveal a beautiful web of causes leading to our choices and the things we consider coincidence?