God in the Ancient Near East

I started Michael Fishbane’s Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003) today.  Here are two points that stood out to me:

1.  On page 33, Fishbane cites an article by Morton Smith entitled “The Common Theology of the Ancient Near East,” which appeared in the Journal of Biblical Literature 71 (1952) 135-147.  You can read it here.

Citing sources from the ancient Near East (e.g., Egypt, Mesopotamia, areas that produced Ugaritic literature, etc.), Smith contends that people in the ANE worshipped gods who had compassion for the poor, executed justice on their patron nation and other countries, healed the sick, forgave sins, received sacrifices for atonement, heard the prayers of the righteous rather than the wicked, and exhorted people to return good for evil.  Even when a god was low in the pantheon, Smith claims, people who worshipped him would flatter him as the supreme god, the god who created the other gods, even the only true god.  And there are statements in ancient Near Eastern literature that predict a righteous king who will arise to set things right. 

This sounds a lot like the God of Israel, who has compassion for the poor and the oppressed, executes justice against Israel and other nations (e.g., Egypt, Assyria, etc.), heals the sick, forgives sin, receives sacrifices, and honors the righteous.  My assumption is that the Israelites actually did regard their God as the supreme God and creator, not that they merely said that stuff to flatter him.  But I’m not sure if I can prove my assumption.  Lying to a god out of flattery doesn’t make much sense to me, to tell you the truth! 

In an attempt to demonstrate the superiority of the religion that God gave to Israel, people have noted differences between Israelite religion and that of the surrounding nations.  The Bible itself does that, for it asserts that the other nations practice child sacrifice (Deuteronomy 12:31), worship idols, and tolerate abominable sexual acts (Leviticus 18).  Scholars have contrasted the Torah with the Code of Hammurapi: whereas the Torah largely treats Israelites as equal (except perhaps in Exodus 21:31-32), the Code of Hammurapi honors the upper classes over the lower ones. 

I believe that God revealed himself to many nations, but does that mean that all the gods are interchangeable, meaning I can worship any god and regard him as a manifestation of the true one?  Although the Letter of Aristeas (second century B.C.E.) claims that the Jews worship Zeus under a different name (see Greco-Roman Monotheism, Biblical Intolerance), the Bible doesn’t exactly go that route, for it criticizes the Israelites’ worship of gods whom they did not know (Deuteronomy 29:26; Jeremiah 44:3), holds that the God of Israel is the only true God (Deuteronomy, Second Isaiah), or regards the gods of the other nations as demons (I Corinthians 10:20-21).  Throughout the Hebrew God, God’s aim is to demonstrate to the nations that he is the LORD, that the God of Israel is the most powerful god.  Why would he try to do this, if he were interchangeable with the gods of the other nations?

Can one say that God did reveal himself to the other nations, but more fully to Israel? 

2.  On page 33, Fishbane discusses the earliest evidence for the ancient Near Eastern motif of a god fighting a sea dragon or serpent.  A Mesopotamian cylinder seal from the Akkad dynasty (c. 2400 B.C.E.) presents two gods fighting a seven-headed monster, four of whose heads are slain, while three remain aggressive.  A Ugaritic myth refers to Baal slaying the mighty Lotan of the seven heads.

Revelation 12, 13, and 17 likewise refer to a monster with seven heads.  Revelation 12 is about Satan (the dragon), whereas chapters 13 and 17 concern the Beast.  Revelation 17:10 applies the seven heads to specific kings, but Revelation may still be drawing from an ancient legend, in which a good guy god defeats an evil seven-headed monster.  Or maybe God clued people in early on about the ultimate battle between good and evil.  As C.S. Lewis liked to say, the good thing about being a Christian is that we get to believe the myths are real!

Published in: on November 5, 2009 at 11:52 pm  Comments (1)  

Fishbane on the Temple Scroll

Michael Fishbane, “Use, Authority and Interpretation of Mikra at Qumran,” Mikra: Text, Translation, Reading and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, ed. Martin Jan Mulder (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004) 339-377.

My Plunder Paper is for the same class as my Fishbane paper. My plunder paper concerns the Temple Scroll’s treatment of the Torah’s laws on plunder. Somewhere in my paper is the question of how authoritative the Qumran interpreters deemed the Pentateuchal laws to be. Michael Fishbane offers his insights.

Fishbane argues that the Temple Scroll is faithful to the biblical traditum, since it draws from books of the Torah and seeks to harmonize its different laws (349-350). At the same time, because God himself is presented as speaking the laws in 11QTemp, Fishbane maintains that the Temple Scroll was intended to be a new Torah (351). So it seems that the Qumran community (or whoever produced the Temple Scroll) viewed the Torah as authoritative, and yet not entirely, since it could be replaced.

Fishbane uses the idea of “ongoing divine revelations” to bridge these seemingly contradictory notions. 1QpHab 2:1-9 talks about the Teacher of Righteousness, who knows the mysteries of the prophets (361), which will be revealed to God’s community in the last times (361-362). Such a notion extended to the legal part of the Bible, for Fishbane states: “Indeed, on their view, God revealed to the sect the hidden interpretation of the Law by which all Israel, including even its great leaders, like David, unknowingly went astray (CD 3:13; cf. 4:13-6)” (364). Moreover, the Rule Scroll exhorts the Qumran sectarians to perform what has been revealed “at each period” (8:15-16; cf. 9:19-20).

For Fishbane, the Qumran community believed in progressive revelation. When they approached the Torah, therefore, they interpreted the laws in light of their newly-revealed meaning. They believed that God was intimately involved in their community, however, so they didn’t just act as if they were interpeting a book. Rather, they held that God was revealing to them a new Torah, which was continuous with the old Torah, yet was relevant to the end times.

In Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel, Fishbane acts as if Jubilees (second century B.C.E.) was an interpretation of the biblical text, whereas others maintain that it was written as an alternative to the Pentateuch. Could both be the case, as Fishbane says is true of the Temple Scroll? Jubilees does refer to the giving of the law at Sinai, plus there is overlap between what it has and the laws and stories contained in the Pentateuch. Maybe Jubilees believed in progressive revelation. Or there’s another possibility: Jubilees refers a lot to heavenly tablets, as if a law existed before creation. Perhaps Jubilees sees itself as the perfect expression of that law.

Published in: on January 11, 2009 at 7:32 pm  Leave a Comment  

Intermediary, Dependence

Source: Birger A. Pearson, “Jewish Sources in Gnostic Literature,” Jewish Writings of the Second Temple Period, ed. Michael E. Stone (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984) 479.

“…the Gnostic pattern featuring the ‘blasphemy’ or ‘vain claim’ of the Demiurge–itself based upon Jewish texts and exegetical traditions–occurs in a number of extant Gnostic texts. Yet the differences among them in details seem to preclude the literary dependence of one text upon another. What is found here is a common tradition, subject to refinement in this or that Gnostic book.”

I wonder what Jewish sources did with the “blasphemy” and “vain claim” of the Demiurge. Granted, one can interpret certain Jewish writings to claim that God has an intermediary. Wisdom of Solomon seems to present wisdom as a personified extension of God. Philo refers to a logos, which he called a “second God.” Targumim present a memra speaking for God.

Do these ideas contradict Jewish monotheism? I’m not sure how Jews in those periods would have answered that. Maybe they thought the intermediary was like the Alan Rickman character in Dogma: a seraph who acts as the voice of God, since God’s real voice is so powerful it would kill us. After all, the Bible often vacillates back and forth between an angel speaking and God speaking (e.g., Genesis 22; Exodus 3; etc.), so perhaps God had an angelic spokesperson early on in Jewish tradition. But, back to my original query, I don’t think Jewish tradition ever saw this intermediary as evil, as Gnosticism does. So I wonder what Pearson has in mind when he says Jewish sources discussed the vanity and blasphemy of the Demiurge.

I also refer to this quote because it can help me in terms of my Fishbane paper. Michael Fishbane seeks to identify inner-biblical exegesis, in which one passage interprets, clarifies, and interacts with another passage. But is passage A necessarily interacting with passing B? Maybe it’s referring to something in the general culture, rather than passage B per se. One way Pearson dismisses the “textual exegesis” possibility is by asking: are the two passages too different for one to have used another? If so, then we can’t dogmatically claim that passage A interprets passage B. Unfortunately, as I’ve shown in past posts, Fishbane sometimes assumes that passage A interacts with passage B, when there are clear differences between the two.

Published in: on December 3, 2008 at 6:03 pm  Leave a Comment  

IV Ezra, Fishbane

Source: Michael E. Stone, “Apocalyptic Literature,” Jewish Writings of the Second Temple Period, ed. Michael E. Stone (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984) 428-429.

“Classic in this connection is 4 Ezra 14 claiming Mosaic authority, indeed authority beyond that of Moses, for the apocalyptic revelations…It has also been claimed persuasively that the methods of exegesis in the apocryphal literature in general and a fortiori in the apocalypses, show that the possibility of inspiration and the results of independent individual cogitation were accorded more weight than in rabbinic literature, this also leading to a less intimate tie to the biblical text.”

Much of IV Ezra was written in the first century C.E., since it mentions Roman emperors from that time. Although there was a biblical canon–as Philo, Josephus, and the New Testament make clear–there were still Jews who believed that God continued to inspire new writings. I guess that’s not too surprising, since the New Testament made the same claim!

This overlaps with my Fishbane paper. (BTW, I haven’t written any Fishbane posts as of late because I’ve actually been working on the Fishbane paper.) During the post-exilic period, there were people who challenged the laws of the Pentateuch. They claimed new inspiration, and they acted as if their writings superseded what came before. That seems to be what occurred within certain circles in the first century C.E., as we see in writings such as IV Ezra.

At the time of IV Ezra, there was a clear canon that most Jews deemed to be authoritative, and it included the Torah and the prophets. Yet, there were still Jews who claimed new revelation, notwithstanding the canon’s existence and prominence. Consequently, even though there were challenges to the Torah in the post-exilic period, it may very well have been an authoritative and widespread traditum, meaning that Fishbane’s model of a traditio interpreting an authoritative traditum has merit. But Fishbane should still acknowledge that there were Jews who questioned the Torah, believing that God could act in new, fresh ways anytime he chose.

Published in: on December 1, 2008 at 8:27 pm  Comments (2)  

Fishbane and the Abortion Passage

Source: Michael Fishbane’s Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (New York: Oxford, 1988) 93.

Exodus 21:22-25 states the following:

“When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”

In this NRSV translation (and many others), there is a fine if the unborn baby dies, but lex talionis if the mother is harmed. But that’s not the only way to understand the passage, since the Hebrew is rather ambiguous. The words translated “misscarriage” literally mean “her children will go out,” so the pro-life interpretation says that the passage means this: if the child comes out healthy, then there’s a fine. But lex talionis follows if the child is harmed in any way.

Fishbane tends to go with how the NRSV interprets the passage, on the basis of ancient Near Eastern parallels: a fine if the child dies, lex talionis for harm to the mother. But he still believes there’s an ambiguity: “…it is still unclear whether damages payable upon injury to the mother would cancel those made for the miscarriage or whether there is to be a double penalty for double damages (i.e., the miscarriage being construed as a damage to the child and not the mother).”

I’m not entirely sure what Fishbane is asking, but part of me gets it. Suppose a man hits a woman and she has a miscarriage, but she also loses her life. Does the man have to pay a fine in addition to being executed?

I don’t see that as a great ambiguity. Why couldn’t he suffer both penalties? But Fishbane believes that ambiguity exists, and he sees it as unresolved. But why is it unresolved, if there were biblical interpreters who sought to clarify biblical texts? Fishbane may appeal to oral tradition as something that answered people’s questions about this law, but, if oral tradition existed, then why did exegetes see a need to write clarifications into the actual text?

I’m not sure if this is a good argument against Fishbane, since the fact that some ambiguities remained unclarified does not preclude the possibility that interpreters tried to clarify other ambiguities. But I do wonder why some got clarified and not others.

Published in: on November 16, 2008 at 12:05 am  Leave a Comment  

Child Sacrifice, Part 3

Source: Michael Fishbane’s Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (New York: Oxford, 1988) 186-187.

Does the Torah command sacrifice of the firstborn? We saw that Exodus 22:29-30 commands the Israelites to give their firstborn to God, but does that necessarily mean child sacrifice?

According to Fishbane, there is another way to interpret that passage. In I Samuel 1:11, we see that Hannah gave her child to God when she devoted him to the service of the temple. Consequently, when God told Israelites to give him their firstborn children, he may have meant that they should give them to the sanctuary: to do lay menial work there. In time, however, that became unfeasible, so there came the rule that parents could monetarily redeem their firstborn children.

A passage that supports Fishbane’s interpretation is Numbers 3:12: “I hereby accept the Levites from among the Israelites as substitutes for all the firstborn that open the womb among the Israelites. The Levites shall be mine” (NRSV). The Levites take the place of the firstborn by doing menial service in the temple. Not suprisingly, some argue that this is what the firstborn did before God picked the Levites: the firstborn were priests who took care of the sanctuary.

Do I have any problems with this view? I can’t exactly disprove it, but it seems to go against some of what Fishbane said elsewhere, which I discuss in Child Sacrifice, Part 2: Exodus 13:13 and 34:20 tells the Israelites that they may redeem their children, whereas Numbers 18:15 tells them they must. The “must” command makes sense if it’s seeking to correct any sense in the Exodus passages that God accepts child sacrifices. So there presumably were people who believed that giving a child to God meant sending him up in smoke.

Also, I wonder what to say about the chronology of the narrative. Numbers 18 commands the redemption of children while also referring to the Levites as priests. But the Levites serving as priests is supposed to take care of the firstborn issue, so why do the Israelites still need to redeem their kids monetarily? Is this a contradiction in Numbers?

Published in: on November 14, 2008 at 1:10 am  Leave a Comment  

Child Sacrifice, Part 2

Source: Michael Fishbane’s Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (New York: Oxford, 1988) 185.

Ezekiel 20:25-26 states:

“Moreover I gave them statutes that were not good and ordinances by which they could not live. I defiled them through their very gifts, in their offering up all their firstborn, in order that I might horrify them, so that they might know that I am the LORD” (NRSV).

According to Fishbane, many scholars believe this passage is saying that God gave laws that could be miscontrued as commanding child sacrifice.

Are there such laws in the Torah? Fishbane cites Exodus 13:13 and 34:20:

Exodus 13:13: But every firstborn donkey you shall redeem with a sheep; if you do not redeem it, you must break its neck. Every firstborn male among your children you shall redeem.

Exodus 34:20: The firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. All the firstborn of your sons you shall redeem. No one shall appear before me empty-handed.

For Fishbane, the word translated “you shall redeem” can also be rendered “you may redeem.” After all, the redemption of the donkey is optional, right? So why not the monetary redemption of a human firstborn? According to Fishbane, there were Israelites who decided to go above and beyond the call of duty, showing God they were serious by sacrificing their firstborn.

Fishbane speculates that Numbers 18:15 was a response to such a horrible interpretation. Vv 15-16 affirm:

“The first issue of the womb of all creatures, human and animal, which is offered to the LORD, shall be yours; but the firstborn of human beings you shall redeem, and the firstborn of unclean animals you shall redeem. Their redemption price, reckoned from one month of age, you shall fix at five shekels of silver, according to the shekel of the sanctuary (that is, twenty gerahs).”

According to Fishbane, Numbers 18:15 is more emphatic in Hebrew, clearly stating that the Israelites must redeem their firstborn rather than sacrificing them.

Ezekiel 20 may be referring to the law in Exodus 34:20, but I doubt it has Exodus 13 in mind. The reason is that Ezekiel 20 says that God gave Israel the bad laws after she trangressed the Sabbath and worshipped false gods. Exodus 34 occurs after Israel’s transgression of the Sabbath in Exodus 16, and the golden calf incident in Exodus 32.

At the same time, one could argue that Exodus 13 was inserted into the Exodus story at a later time. If that is the case, then its place in the story is not exactly relevant.

Published in: on November 13, 2008 at 3:41 am  Leave a Comment  

Child Sacrifice, Part 1

Source: Michael Fishbane’s Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (New York: Oxford, 1988) 184.

“Recalling the failure of Exod. 22:28-9 to provide any written comment differentiating the treatment of human first-born from their animal counterparts (regardless of how the oral biblical tradition may have eventually harmonized this formulation with the other Pentateuchal versions)…”

Okay, I cut it off in mid-sentence.

Exodus 22:29-30 (which is actually what Fishbane means–he must use a different numbering system on a number of occasions) states the following:

“You shall not delay to make offerings from the fullness of your harvest and from the outflow of your presses. The firstborn of your sons you shall give to me.
You shall do the same with your oxen and with your sheep: seven days it shall remain with its mother; on the eighth day you shall give it to me” (NRSV).

In many cases (which I will not detail here), the Torah offers alternatives to human sacrifice, such as monetary compensation, or devoting the Levites to God as a substitute for the Israelite firstborn. But that’s not in Exodus 22:29-30. Fishbane has a problem with that, for he wonders why it’s absent there. Wouldn’t the editor include it to avoid any impression that God wants Israelites to sacrifice their firstborn?

What intrigues me is Fishbane’s reference to an oral tradition, which is a solution he proposes to his problem. If there’s an oral tradition that harmonizes Exodus 22:29-30 with other versions of the law, then why did people feel compelled to write their interpretations in the text? Didn’t the oral tradition take care of everything? Why write down things that people knew apart from writing?

I don’t know. Why do people write anything down? Various rabbinic writings got written down so that the oral traditions could be preserved, since Christianity was attacking Judaism. Did the Bible finally get written down when Jerusalem was destroyed in 587 B.C.E.? Perhaps, but such a view would have to account somehow for the presentation of the Torah as a book in the Josiah narrative (II Kings 22-23).

Maybe there was no compulsion on anyone’s part to edit Exodus 22:29-30. Scribes may have written their interpretations into the biblical texts at various points, but that doesn’t mean they had to do so all of the time. People aren’t always meticulous, and they make choices. As I’ve said before, authors are humans, not computers.

Or the scribes assumed that the laws circumscribing (or, better, eliminating) human sacrifice were clearly stated elsewhere in the Torah, so they felt no need to include them in Exodus 22:29-30.

Published in: on November 12, 2008 at 2:10 am  Comments (2)  

Fishbane on Numbers 15, Part 4

Source: Michael Fishbane’s Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (New York: Oxford, 1988) 194.

Fishbane states the following about Numbers 15′s interpretation of Leviticus 4:

“Clearly [in Numbers 15] YHWH is not the speaker, for he is referred to in the third person in the relative clauses of vv. 22b and 23b; nor is Moses the speaker, and for the same reason. The speaker is thus neither YHWH nor Moses but…a preacher of the law of YHWH as given to Moses. That this preacher did not simply preach the law of Lev. 4 is clear in the explanations which are added, the expansion of the law to include the stranger, and the addition of provisions dealing with intentional transgressions and an entire ideology pertaining thereto. But nowhere does the preacher adjust his legal traditio–revolutionary as it is–to a divine speaker’s words or authority; and nowhere does he make use of the preaching authority of Moses, as does the deuteronomist repeatedly.”

I think Fishbane is saying here that the author of Numbers 15:22-31 respects the divine authority of the traditum, Leviticus 4. Consequently, he does not try to rewrite it, but rather he presents himself as a human interpreter. This may be true, but Fishbane’s acknowledgement that Deuteronomy takes another track shows that not everyone saw the traditum as totally authoritative. Deuteronomy may have been trying to replace what came before by offering a new Torah. What’s that say about how he viewed the old Torah? Deuteronomy resembles the pseudepigraphical writings, which use older traditions while offering something novel. Scholars have contended that Jubilees, for instance, was intended to replace the Torah.

But the fact that not everyone views the traditum as authoritative does not mean that no one does. So Fishbane may be right to note that different interpreters interact with sources in different ways. Some try to interpret them, and some try to replace them.

Tomorrow, I may tackle child sacrifice.

Published in: on November 10, 2008 at 8:02 pm  Leave a Comment  

Fishbane on Numbers 15, Part 3

Source: Michael Fishbane’s Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (New York: Oxford, 1988) 193.

Numbers 15:22-23 says the following:

“22 But if you unintentionally fail to observe all these commandments that the LORD has spoken to Moses–
“23 everything that the LORD has commanded you by Moses, from the day the LORD gave commandment and thereafter, throughout your generations” (NRSV).

According to Fishbane, v 23 is a later addition, which is designed to clarify v 22. V 22 says “all these commandments,” which one can easily construe as the commands of Numbers 15:3-21. To correct that misconception, a later editor adds v 23, making clear that the principle applies to all of God’s commandments, not only the ones in Numbers 15.

This makes sense, in my opinion. On the other hand, couldn’t a single author write “all these commandments,” then correct or clarify himself? “All these commandments” occurs in Leviticus 26:14, and it doesn’t immediately follow specific laws. Maybe the author wrote “all these commandments” meaning all of the Torah (in his understanding of Torah), then offered further clarification, since he realized he could be misunderstood.

Published in: on November 9, 2008 at 11:54 pm  Leave a Comment  
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