Tuesday, October 31, 2006

In the News: Ancient Egyptian Festival of Drunkenness

MSNBC is reporting that at a briefing in Baltimore Saturday, Johns Hopkins University's Betsy Bryan, summarized her team's findings on an Egyptian religious festival of heavy drinking, sex, and "party music," which was held annually at the Temple of Mut in Luxor, in a precinct known as the "Porch of Drunkenness" ("Sex and Booze").

Here is the court at the Mut temple in Luxor, Egypt, where the Festival of Drunkenness likely took place. Sandstone columns found in this court refer to the festival:

The "porch" was erected in the New Kingdom period, during the reign of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut (c. 1479-1459 BCE). This dates the practice of drunken religious festivals much earlier in Egypt than previously attested.

The Egyptian wall painting below shows some heavy drunken partying in Egypt. The woman in the upper left has definitely had too much--you can see her vomiting! (click to enlarge).

A Few Photos

Each of these photos can be enlarged by clicking.
The first is a neat one I found on Flikr:

Pumpkins at Flikr

Here is a shot Catherine and I took on a recent walk around the VTS campus:

Pumpkins at VTS

Neat Link: Codex today has a fun post on "Witches in the Hebrew Bible," including a real fun link to a Monty Python sketch! (click here)

Monday, October 30, 2006

New Blog Poll: The Theological Interpretation of Scripture

As I posted recently, the discussion continues over at Kevin Wilson's BlueCord blog on whether Bible classes at a Liberal Arts college should should be "theological." The discussion gave me the idea for a new blog poll, which I'll again do in partnership with the MAR-SBL site. Click Here to vote!

The poll's format does not allow for long-worded phrasing, yet I wanted to capture at least the flavor of the current discussion. This is what I ended up with:

Should Bible Classes at a Liberal Arts College be Theological?

A) No, they should teach historical-criticism.
B) Well, all readers necessarily bring "theological" assumptions and questions to class.

C) Scripture is an irreducibly theological animal.
D) I agree with both the two preceding responses.
E) I look at things differently than the above.


Sunday, October 29, 2006

Isaiah 59:1-19 (Year B, Proper 25; 21 Pentecost)

Today's appointed reading is Isaiah 59:1-19. Reading over the first 2/3 of the passage gives a pretty dark picture of sin taking a heavy toll on human life. What becomes striking to me is how God seizes the initiative and intervenes in independent, direct, apocalyptic fashion starting in v. 15b.

The Living PulpitSomething Walter Wink wrote in the Living Pulpit issue on "Sin" strikes me as helpful and related. As part of a piece entitled "The Gladsome Doctrine of Sin," Wink writes that we simply must be realistic about the sheer power of sin and malignancy round about us. We must not be passive, but we must be modest, "so that we can be expectant toward God." "And modesty is an enormous relief. It is the infallible sign that one has been awakened from dreams of perfection. The Powers can be redeemed, but not made flawless. And when we no longer have to believe that we must make everything happen ourselves, we are well-positioned to live in anticipation of miracles" (The Living Pulpit vol. 8, no. 4 [Oct-Dec 1999]: p. 5).

Neat Link: Iron Age Images

Tim Bulkeley has another neat on-line resource that people should know about. One of his sites has a fine collection of images from various archaeological sites relating to the period of the Hebrew Bible (click here). His albums of photos include Arad, Beersheba, Carmel, Gezer, Hazor, Lachish, and Megiddo. Several of these albums also have video introductions. A few weeks ago, he added a video introduction to Ancient Empires, Assyria, Babylonia, and Persia, which lasts about 7 minutes. Our thanks to Tim for all the work that has gone, and is going, into this e-resource.

Here is a sample image from his album on Gezer:

This is the well-known City Gate of Gezer. Note the monumental scale of the gate, and the expensive ashlar ("cut stone") building materials. To the upper right of the image, a casemate (two-layered) city wall and barracks extends in a south-western direction. Israel made a major investment in fortifying this site, since it commanded a major crossroads in the land. By building up Gezer, the monarchic leadership was claiming a state for itself, bearing witness to its rule and the rule of its God.

Note also how an ancient city gate was really a gate-complex, an entire building with several rooms. The city's elders would meet in such rooms, and legal cases would be decided there. This gate at Gezer has the six-chambered "Solomonic" form, three chambers, each lined with benches, on each side of the central road running up to the top of the image and out of the city. You can see a large stone basin in the upper-left gateroom.

The road has been artificially raised and a drain runs down its middle and out and down steeply into the valley. In ancient times, that is how a city got rid of its waste, and only lepers and outcasts would spend much time in a valley below a city's gate.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Theological Interpretation of Scripture

Just a heads-up that there is a fascinating discussion over on Kevin Wilson's blog on the theological interpretation of Scripture. Since Kevin was kind enough to draw me into the discussion, I've posted a few comments (with spelling errors and all). Kevin, currently on the faculty of a Christian Liberal Arts college in Lithuania, is defending a non-theological approach to OT studies before his faculty colleagues. Very interesting... Click here to access the discussion.

"Psalm 5," Written and Read by Ernesto Cardenal

In his "Psalm 5," Ernesto Cardenal rewrites a familiar poem from the Old Testament into a searing indictment of war, propaganda and goverment lies. Whatever your opinion of liberation theology, the classic poem is certainly moving and stimulating. Although the poem was originally written in 1967, almost forty years ago, this video of the now 81-year old priest's reading of it was shot this year (2006).

Ernesto Cardenal Martínez (born January 20, 1925) has not been without controversy. When Pope John Paul II visited Nicaragua in 1983, he openly scolded Cardenal, who knelt before him on the Managua airport runway, for resisting his order to resign from the Sandanista government, where he served as Minister of Culture. Cardenal left the FSLN in 1994 protesting Ortega's rule.

Is Cardenal controversial enough to provoke some comments and discussion here? I live in hope...

Friday, October 27, 2006

A Brief Apology for Divine Retribution

Are Job and Deuteronomy at odds?

Many scholars and homilists say so, but they have not looked closely at the logic. They rightly want to stress, with the book of Job, that you cannot assume that someone in pain is getting their just desserts for some sin. As true as that is, it does not mean there is no such thing as divine retribution and that Deuteronomy, which emphasizes retribution, had got it wrong. Consider the following computer slide (click to greatly enlarge):

Deuteronomy's concern with divine retribution (covenant curses) would fall in the overlap of the two circles that I have drawn. This overlap zone represents the cases where the suffering we see around us is the result of sin. I hope that it is clear from the diagram that the existence of this overlap zone does not at all mean that suffering is necessarily punishment. Absolutely, much suffering that we see around us is innocent, unjust suffering. The entire portion of the left-hand circle that does not overlap with the circle on the right represents suffering that has nothing to do with divine punishment for sin.

Both OT and NT know well that there is a deed-consequence pattern in life, and that God intervenes to punish sin, but neither testament calls us to be illogical and to apply this pattern to our experience superficially or rigidly!

Thursday, October 26, 2006

New Book on Afterlife

As most of you know, I'm giving a talk on the Hereafter at the upcoming SBL meetings. Thus, I was excited to see the recent RBL review of a new book: L’homme face à la mort au royaume de Juda: Rites, pratiques et représentations, by Hélene Nutkowicz (click here for the PDF file). I had a series of posts on this topic very recently on this blog (e.g., click here).

The review of the book is rather favorable, as you will see. It mentions that N. gives a fairly comprehensive discussion of the Afterlife, including a discussion of the nature of Sheol, the land of darkness and silence, the voyage to get there, and the condition and mood of its occupants. Nutkowicz suggests that the Hebrew people believed in amortality. At first glance, it seems to me that this might be a helpful term, since it stresses that the soul does survive death, but it does not view death as positive or beatific as might be implied by the term "immortality."

N. also discusses the relationships between the living and the dead, the repa’im, the ’elohim, the practice of necromancy, the duties toward the dead and toward the living, inscriptions, and the cult of the dead and of the ancestors.

Neat Link: TanakhML Free On-Line

Neat Link

A WebSite I discovered recently is worth a visit, even a bookmark: TanakhML. Tanakh, for those unfamiliar with the term, stands for Torah (תורה, or "Law"), Neviim (נביאים, or "Prophets") and Ketuvim (כתובים, or "Writings"), that is, for the Hebrew Bible. The ML in the site's name stands for XML, an internet language that allows the site to deliver the Hebrew Bible to us in a nicely structured, highly usable way.

The site is developing, but as of now I see two main features that are of interest to most of us. Most obviously, it presents the text of BHS (Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, the current standard scholarly Bible), in full, with accents, in Unicode for easy copying and Web use.

Also, and this is something I have not seen before, the site provides what it calls a Verse (Cantillation) Structure Analyser. Click here to see what it does with a sample verse, Gen 1:1. The Analyser breaks down the structure of the verse according to the understanding implied by the major Masoretic accents in the verse. It diagrams the analysis in a very clear way, showing disjunctions at the verse, half-verse, and quarter-verse level. In lay terms, this essentially tells you where the Masoretes understood the periods, semicolons, and commas to go. Unfortunately, the poetic books are not included at this time.

Red Sea Twist (Humor)

Hat Tip to Chuck H. for this submission:


Wednesday, October 25, 2006

A Model Exposition (Psalm 1)

Hearty thanks to Elizabeth Felicetti for sharing this marvelous homily on Psalm 1. As I have told her, I wish I could hear expository preaching like this out in the real church. She delivered this homily on Psalm 1 on Monday in the VTS chapel.

Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked. Everything they do shall prosper.

This sounds like the so-called prosperity gospel, the idea that God is a kind of Santa Claus who rewards us when we are good, while the naughty boys and girls are like the chaff that the wind blows away. Or, if things in your life aren't prospering, then you must not have enough faith.

But this simply is not true, at least not as society defines happiness or prosperity. Those who delight in the law of God are not necessarily happier than those who do not. In fact, it often seems like those who do not give a rat's patootie about sin or the gospel have a lot more fun than those who do. Sometimes "the wicked" get rich and famous while terrible things happen to the faithful.

This is true today and was true in the Bible: think of Job asking
"Why do the wicked live on, reach old age, and grow mighty in power?" Think of the terrible things that happened to the prophets for following God's call. Think of Jesus, the human furthest from wickedness, who suffered the humiliation of death on a cross. And think of our friends and family who suffer today.

"Blessed" is another translation for אשׁרי, the word our prayer book translates as "happy" in Psalm 1. But changing the translation from "happy" to "blessed" doesn't change the trouble of the text, because if we say "Blessed are those have not walked in the counsel of the wicked," the blessing still has a connotation of benefit. Blessings are good things--the opposite of curses. So if they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked are blessed, then surely they will be rewarded.

But as Kent Richards writes [1], the benefits of blessings are secondary. The primary function of a blessing is the establishment of a relationship. Those who delight in the teaching of God are not guaranteed that benefits will flow from this relationship, but they are blessed because of the relationship created between them and God, a relationship which can provide them, provide us, with a foundation so that we can be like trees planted by streams--in other words, closer to a body of water that can provide nourishment so that we can stay alive and even bear fruit during the droughts or disasters that come with life.

The idea of blessing and happiness in the Bible is different than our autonomous American ideal of putting ourselves first. In Psalm 1, God comes first. The happy or blessed one who meditates on the teaching of God is putting God in the center, instead of him- or herself.

In a recent Newsweek article, Rabbi Marc Gellman wrote that "very bad people can be very happy"; but, he points out that happiness in our culture has come to be synonymous with pleasure, and that in fact, these two words are not synonymous.

I can commit all kinds of sins that might result in temporary pleasure, but that is not the path to true happiness, "the way of the righteous" that the psalmist describes. Bad things happen to good Christians. But they are still blessed. When we look at the Psalter as a whole, we see faith and hope, as in this psalm, but also lament and despair. We see this in the Bible as a whole as well. We see the life of the cross, but we see the promise of the resurrection. In the Hebrew psalms class last year we learned that one way to translate verse five of Psalm 1 is, "therefore the wicked will not resurrect in the judgment."

But who are the wicked? The bar for the righteous seems to be set pretty high in this psalm. Do you all meditate on God's teaching day and night?


Clinton McCann [2] suggests that the righteous are not necessarily morally superior, but are those who are open to God's teaching and God's will, while the "wicked" are the autonomous ones who are self-centered and self-directed.

Following Jesus in the way of the righteous will not be easy and may not lead to riches or to happiness by the standards set by our society, but we will be blessed in this life and in the one to come. AMEN

[1] Richards, Kent, "Bless/Blessing," in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 1, ed. By David Freedman, New York: Doubleday, 1992, 754.

[2] McCann, J. Clinton and James Howell, Preaching the Psalms, Nashville: Abingdon, 2001, 91-92.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

New Biblioblog "Carnival" is Coming Up on Michael Paul's Site

Anything on this blog caught your eye? Why not nominate it for the upcoming Carnival of Bible Blogs?? In fact, please nominate good stuff from any Bible blog that you have enjoyed this month. Just send an email with a few details and the link to this month's host, Michael Paul.

Need more information? Check out: "Biblical Studies Carnival XI: call for submissions" here. Even more information is available here, at the Carnival Homepage. Thanks for considering it! ---SLC

A Bit More on Sudan and Bishop Daniel

Thank you all who visited yesterday's post on Sudan. I thought I would add a few notes introducing Bishop Daniel Deng Bul to those who want to know more about his life. Hat Tip to my colleague Rich Jones for providing us with detailed information. You can learn more about the Episcopal Church of Sudan by clicking here. The photos below are by Alix Dorr, Virginia Theological Seminary.


Bishop Deng was born in southern Sudan among the Jieng people (the Dinka) and was baptized a Christian at age 13. War in Sudan cut short his education at Bishop Gwynne Theological College in Mundri and drove him into exile, along with four million other southern Sudanese. He became an evangelist and church planter in Port Sudan on the Red Sea and then in Khartoum on the Nile.

In 1988, he was elected bishop of Renk, his current position. As bishop, he has made founding schools a priority---schools ranging from kindergarten to Bible College. He has established a clinic, started a farm, and constructed a permanent cathedral in Renk, dedicated in February 2006 by his grace, Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury.


Most currently, Bishop Deng has been named chairperson of the Sudan church's Commission on Peace, Justice, and Reconciliation. He is working tirelessly to bring peace with justice to his country, and to aid millions of refugees in returning to their homes in the south.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Sudan, Bible, and Strategy

We enjoyed a wonderful visit here at VTS from a major player in Sudan, Bishop Daniel Deng Bul. Above is a photo from his lunch last Friday with those of us engaged in the program teaching biblical languages at the Bible College at Renk, his diocese. We met out in Scott Lounge and had a very full table. Pictured with Daniel here are Loren H. (left) and Meredith H. (right). Bishop Daniel is inspiring in every way. I hope to give a bit more background about him in another post soon.


Bishop Daniel's lecture last Thursday was extremely informative about the complex situation on the ground in Sudan right now. He is trying to help the fragile peace between north and south go forward while at the same time helping the south make clear to the north that UN troops need to be allowed in Darfur in the west. The south has bravely communicated to the Khartoum government that it supports UN troops, while also trying to stress that they firmly support the legitimacy of the new united government of Sudan.

Did you know that the peace agreement in place gives Sudan three (3) armies? The united government has an army as does the north, and the south was also allowed to keep an army. Having an army gives the agreement a chance to work, according to Bishop Daniel. Without it, the north would surely have breached the peace agreement by now and the war would have broken out again. As it is, the north is not playing very fair on several issues, such as the 50/50 sharing of oil revenue. The north's latest ploy is to insist that the 50/50 sharing only applies to oil pumped from the south, not to all the oil produced in the country as a whole!

One thing that the crisis in Darfur has shown is that the roots of the horrible violence in Sudan are not fundamentally religious but are ethnic. While attacking the south, the north could claim that it was a conflict between Islam and Christianity (even though it was Arab north versus African south). But in the Darfur violence, it is Muslim against Muslim. The roots of the conflict are plainly racial: it is Arab trying to wipe out African.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Isaiah 53:4-12 (Year B, Proper 24; 20 Pentecost)

Today's appointed OT reading is Isaiah 53:4-12. The text is the best known and weightiest of the famous Servant Songs of Isaiah (Isa 42:1–4; 49:1–6; 50:4–9; 52:13–53:12; and 61:1–3). These Songs are difficult texts to interpret; in fact, they are among the most controversial passages of Scripture. Before diving in and expositing them, you need to think hard about the identity of the Song's chief protagonist. Most often, at least in my hearing, people in the pulpit get this wrong---quite wrong! Who is the Servant of the Lord?

I recommend approaching the Servant Songs as theological and spiritual meditations. Their hero is no figure of history but an artistic study. What we have here is a superb portrait of ideal servanthood.

The portrait did not emerge out of thin air but echoes preceding Scriptures, especially the Bible’s courageous servants of old. One can justly speak of the Servant as old Abraham himself. The Servant is also Sarah, David, and Jeremiah. He is the best of all of these figures, merged into one person. The poets who created the Servant Songs must have studied and prayed long and hard over Israel’s Scriptures. Out of scriptural building blocks, they constructed a figure who encapsulates the Bible’s highest aspirations for human nature. In the Suffering Servant, they present us with an ideal human being in the true image of God, who holds nothing back but gives everything in love.

The language of the Songs describing the Suffering Servant is radically open to the future. Rather than expressing one person’s ancient, dusty religious experience, it empowers readers of all time to live in a radically new way. This is poetic language with power, seeking to incarnate itself within anyone willing to embrace it.

Psalm 91 (Year B, Proper 24; 20 Pentecost)

Today's appointed psalm is Psalm 91.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Update on Current Poll

We're up to 30 votes in my current poll on professors and politics now. I think the overall results have pretty much stabilized. Does any one have any final comments on this discussion? Would anyone like to suggest a new poll question? I would be happy to consider it...


"All We Like Sheep" (Humor)


"The Plagues"

The Prince of Egypt - The Plagues

For fun, here is the song "The Plagues" along with its video sequence in the DreamWorks production, "The Prince of Egypt." This is one of the several highlights of the film for many of its fans. It does not, however, include the death of the firstborn sequence, which the film treats in a rather theologically profound way (a topic for a future post?).

The "Plagues" sequence is a duet between Moses and Ramses, with a chorus in the background, chanting ominously "I send the swarm, I send the horde — thus saith the Lord" as Moses’ and Ramses’ lines overlap.

Friday, October 20, 2006

A Few Personal Sinai Photos

Before leaving the topic of Mount Sinai, I thought I'd post a few personal photos taken at Jebel Musa (also spelled Jabal Musa or Gebel Musa), the traditional site of the mountain of Moses. These were all taken on the same morning on a trek up to the top of the mountain. Enjoy! (Click to enlarge.)

But just where is it? I don't see it on my map!

The mountain in Sinai discussed in yesterday's post is almost impossible to find in a Bible atlas. Here are two images that should help you pinpoint Hashem el Tarif, this possible site of Mount Sinai. (Click either image to greatly enlarge.)

The above image is a satellite view looking south, down into the Sinai peninsula. In the upper left half of the screen you can see the Gulf of 'Aqaba, one of the rabbit ears of the Red Sea, with Eilat at its tip. Hashem el Tarif is marked in the lower middle of the shot.

The second image (above) maps out the location of Hashem el Tarif in relation to Eilat and the Gulf (at the lower right corner) and Kadesh-barnea (at the top left). Highlighted in yellow is the proposed "way of Seir," which would distinguish this Seir from the traditional one way over in east Edom.

Note that about midway on this yellow line lies Kuntillet Ajrud (Horvat Teman in Hebrew), a known pilgrimage / cultic stop for northern Israelites (c. 830 and 760 BCE), located 15 km west of the modern Israeli-Egyptian border. You can see that Kuntillet Ajrud also lies near the widely-traveled, strategically important ancient route leading to Eilat (not highlighted but clear on this image).

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Where is Mount Sinai (Mt. Horeb)? Hashem el Tarif??

I heartily recommend Dr. Chris Heard's recent post, presenting an in-depth review of the investigation of Mount Sinai, the mountain of the covenant, in the Exodus Decoded special (click here). After a thorough review of the evidence, Chris concludes that the proposed new location, Hashem el Tarif, may or may not be correct. Let me add here a few brief thoughts and questions.

Deuteronomy 1:2 is a key verse in the discussion. The text mentions an 11-day distance between Mount Horeb / Sinai to Kadesh-barnea, a distance that roughly fits Hashem el Tarif as Mount Sinai. This definitely puts Hashem el Tarif on the map of likely possibilities for Mount Sinai. Dr. Uzi Avner, a respected student of the Sinai and Negev, favors this location for this reason among others. It's a much better fit than the idea of Harvard's Frank Cross and others (such as BAR's Hershel Shanks) who propose that Mt. Sinai was in Saudi Arabia.

Interestingly, the verse also mentions "Seir." Chris goes on to write, "I have no idea why anyone would want to go from Kadesh-barnea to Mount Horeb by way of Mount Seir. It seems like a strange route to me." True, so perhaps "Seir" means something different here in Deut 1:2 than the mountain point in eastern Edom on most Bible maps. Is the NAB on to something, when it speaks of "the highlands of Seir," rather than the traditional "Mount Seir," in this verse?

Judges 5:4 has Yahweh come from Edom and Seir to do battle for his people, and Deuteronomy 33:2 says, "Yahweh . . . dawned upon us from Seir." Where is this Seir? Uzi Avner has noted that the extension of Hashem el Tarif is identified as Jabel Seira on maps of the Sinai. Other scholars have noted that Egyptian topographical lists from the 14th and 13th centuries b.c.e. list a "country of Yhw-nomads" under the heading "country of Seir-nomads." All very interesting! And what about the open-air cult sites, graves of saints, and fresh-water spring at Hashem el Tarif? I'd like to know more about this evidence. For instance, does it reflect ancient veneration of Hashem el Tarif, before the Iron Age, before the exodus? Does it reflect pilgrimages to Mount Sinai by Israelites of the later, post-settlement, monarchic period? Does a holy mountain need a spring to water God's gardens (a la Eden)? These are honest questions...

Even if some Israelite pilgrims were using Hashem el Tarif as Mount Sinai, their identification was not necessarily correct, and other Israelites may have disagreed with it. 1 Kings 19:3-9 indicates that it took Elijah 41 days to reach Horeb from Beersheba. This tradition would put Mount Sinai much farther south in the Sinai. It would, in fact, be closer to Jebel Musa and St. Catherine's monastery, the traditional site of Christian pilgrimage to Mount Sinai.

Update: For my next post on this topic, with photo and map, click here.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

James Barr, 1924-2006


I just learned that well-known biblical scholar, James Barr, died four days ago in Claremont California at the age of 82. This was an OT scholar who really impacted the field. Along with Childs, Barr helped redirect the whole field of biblical studies by undermining the foundations of the "biblical theology movement" of the post-WW2 period. Barr is the chief reason we don't assign "word studies" in our classes anymore, which used to be a central student exercise! I never got to know James Barr, but got very familiar with his thought through the long-running friendly feud between him and Brevard Childs. I remember Childs assembling a special lunch meeting of us grad students to talk about a most recent package from Barr, which contained his latest article that we all had to read. Barr had scribbled a "friendly" note across the top to Bard referring to their ongoing critiques of each other, something to the effect of "this one's damage is not all that serious."

Myth Versus Theology!

For the immediately preceding post in this series, click here.

In this post, I want to try to talk in general about the nature of myth. Indeed, I want to attempt some theological talk about myth as a category of interpretation of the Bible. (This will be tough going, but bear with me---it's important.)

Why does a theological exegesis of the Bible almost instinctively step back from interpreting the Bible as myth? There are two common but wrong answers. (1) Many say that it is just because lay definitions of myth are not critical enough. All would be well with using the term "myth" if we could simply avoid defining myths as misguided explanations about reality. Simply using a more critical definition would clear the way for acceptable talk about the Bible as myth. (2) Others (e.g., Robert Oden) often say that most all the nervousness about myth comes from a misguided assumption that the importance of the Bible lies in its uniqueness. To avoid speaking of myth in Bible for that reason is silly, because it's impossible and naive to think of Bible and its cultural surroundings as discontinuous with each other. I am willing to grant that there is some truth to these two common apologies for myth. However, they have nothing to do with my qualms about granting that the Bible presents us with myths.

Neither of these points, I hold, really gets to the bottom of the theological problem with myth. I would be fine if Myth just meant "truth in poetic form," but Myth is much more pernicious than that! Myth, at least as Rudolf Bultmann understood it, is a culture's projection of itself. Myth is the way that a human culture objectifies and symbolizes its (outdated!; primitive?) worldview as a whole. Since our modern worldview is radically different from the ancient Israelite one, myth is what has to be deconstructed before anything in Bible becomes applicable for the here and now. If this is what myth is (and I believe Bultmann is simply accepting what modern secular anthropology is telling him), then we need to pause and consider if we really want to characterize key parts of Bible as mythic in essence.


This definition subsumes "myth" within the category of culture and history-of-religions, not the category of kerygma and theology. Myth is what is human, cultural, and anthropological. It is not that which conveys kerygma / Word / witness. In fact, myth is what must be demythologized in order to get theological truth from the Bible, since it is not itself a possible bearer of God's word. I see Bible having theological force to temper and critique the religion and culture around it. Thus, I do not identify Bible with simple cultural expression. Rather, I perceive that it has (relative) "critical distance"; it does not merely offer us the symbols that support the culture of its milieu.

It is too widespread an assumption, I assert, that Bible and Israelite religious culture are one and the same.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Bible and Myth (and Dr. Enns)

For the preceding post in this series, click here.

Well, I had a very gracious email from Pete Enns down at Westminster Seminary. I should admit we are less far apart than my previous post may have made out. Pete rightly clarifies that in Inspiration and Incarnation he does argue that Bible takes on the mythologies of neighboring cultures. I did not mean to suggest that we differed on this point. We agree that there is a struggle, and that Bible is able to use Near Eastern mythic language as a tool in this struggle.

Still, Pete does insist that Bible retains mythic ways of speaking and, indeed, mythic categories too! So Pete and I both agree that Bible co-opts mythic images and terms for its own purpose. (I would hold that that purpose centers on expressing covenantal themes and rather profound hopes about where the covenant is taking both Israel and the world around Israel.) However, I continue to part ways with Pete. I want to insist that Bible is not constrained by mythic categories.

In short, I strongly resist the idea that the Bible's witness really became incarnate through the mythic categories of its contemporary cultural milieu. Rather, against the constraints of mythic categories, Bible understands the saving acts of God to have a non-repeating, once-for-all character. For biblical Israel, the structure of reality was first and foremost linear and historical in character and not mythical and timeless. In biblical theology, real history--fixed historical events and a singular covenantal enactment with God--made Israel what it was.

The mythic categories of the ancient Near East were hardly adequate to convey the true nature of the biblical God. This God is above the fray of the booming "multiverse" of mythic imagination, where immanent supernatural forces controlled fertility, death, storms, and most everything else. The biblical God is not immanent in the forces of the world and nature, and Bible combats such belief as idolatrous. (Better: There is an early and ongoing struggle with such belief, that becomes clearer over time. Childs uses the term "struggle," and I think that captures what went on.)

And Bible does not make this point from within the genre of myth, but uses what Gunkel called "saga" and what Frank Cross called "epic" to convey the story of God with humanity. To tell its story, Genesis uses the same sort of brief concise narrative that families use to tell old stories about great grandma. (Saga is not history in our sense of the word, but neither is it myth. It is a genre that takes story and time seriously.)

This literary move emphasizes the centrality of historical thinking in biblical Israel. Alan F. Segal recently wrote something rather profound along these lines: "The events happening in the marketplaces and courts of Israel were meant to be just as important... as the [so-called events of] mythic time." (I've altered this quote a little, because Segal, like Enns, still makes a little too much room for myth in the earliest parts of Genesis.)

When confronted with claims that the world really is a multiverse of immanent supernatural forces, Bible gets combative and mounts a struggle. The chaos serpent is reduced to a talking snake in Eden, who played no role in the drama of creation (Genesis 3:1). Alternatively, Leviathan is a mere sea creature (Genesis 1:21). In either case, he has lost his power to overwhelm the human psyche. When the King of Tyre claims to be one of the heavenly cherubim, he is soundly put in his place (Ezekiel 28:2, 19). When Assyria claims to be the mighty cosmic-tree of world myth, it is pictured chopped down like any tree of Lebanon (Ezekiel 31:12).

More on this soon. To be continued...

Monday, October 16, 2006

Hebrew & Humor: Abbott & Costello

Tyler in his Codex blog has done Hebrew instruction a great service by making available to all the well-done Abbott and Costello routine on Hebrew by Rabbi Jack Moline, a friend of mine and longtime adjunct instructor here at VTS. Tyler notes that he always enjoys using it in his introductory Hebrew course. Click here.

(To see the original video-sketch that inspired this take-off, click here.)

He also has posted a "Dr. Seuss Learns Greek," which is also worth looking at. (click here).


A Bit More on Amos

There is a rather informative Amos Window at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Capitol Hill, DC. It honors Verna J. Dozier, a VTS alumna, who died very recently (see my recent post).

The flames behind Amos' head symbolize his fiery prophecy. His presence in the market illustrates his overriding concern for social and economic justice. He is using props such as coins and sandals to drive home his points about the ongoing economic oppression of the poor. The baskets of summer fruit in the lower left were a key prop used by Amos in a wonderful Hebrew wordplay at Amos 8:2. Just as the Hebrew word for late-summer fruit is קיץ (qayits), God is calling it quits with the people. The time is ripe for judgment on such figures as the king and his priest, Amaziah (Amos 7:10-17), who stand back to the right in the image.

Verna Dozier and her sister Lois actually appear in the window. They are standing to the lower left of the figure of Amos. Verna made the Old testament come alive for her students. She embodied it.

She learned her love of the Hebrew Bible from her mother, Lucie, who read all the books of the Bible with her daughters (not just the New Testament!).

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Amos 5:6-15 (Year B, Proper 23; 19 Pentecost)

Today's appointed reading is Amos 5:6-15. I just recently discovered a new on-line hyper-commentary on Amos that is pretty cool. To check it out, click here. It is part of a larger ongoing Hypertext Bible Commentary project.

One thing that struck me today about Amos 5 is the contrast between seeking and clinging that seems to underlie the theology of the chapter. The call to "seek" certainly stands out in Amos 5. Verses 4, 6, & 14 exhort Israel to seek the Lord and the good.

Amos is advocating a spiritual stance quite different from "clinging." The people cannot simply cling to their faith that the LORD God of hosts is with them, as they are saying (5:14). Neither should they cling to their houses of well-hewn stone or pleasant vineyards (5:11). They have got to look and wait expectantly to encounter God as God really is. They have to push aside every preoccupation that prevents this discipline of active seeking.

I heard one of Leo Tolstoy's metaphors this morning. Tolstoy contrasted a person who clings to a lamp-post and a person able to be on the move by holding a lamp on a pole, able to seek and discover. The latter type of person is not trapped, but is on a path of growth.

Psalm 90 (Year B, Proper 23; 19 Pentecost)

"Teach us to realize the brevity of life, so that we may grow in wisdom."
(Psalm 90:12 NLT)
23rd Psalm

This choir video from South Africa was posted early this year to YouTube. Members of various churches from around Cape Town form the group.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Forgiveness and the Amish Debated

For a very interesting blog debate on whether it was wise for the Amish to be so quick to forgive the murderer of the innocent schoolgirls, click here. The blog that raises the question is run by a seminary instructor, trained in psychology and Christianity. I'd be interested in any comments on his question of whether the Amish were too quick in their forgiveness.

Apparently, at least one Amish spokesperson made a public statement denying anger at the killings, and he linked the absence of Amish anger with Amish forgiveness. If this is true, it might set up a false tension between anger and forgiveness. Further, it might do a real disservice to Amish families, who probably should be making private use of such OT Scriptures as the Psalms to express their hurt and anger, and to call on God for intervention and justice.

Noah's Ark with Donald D (Fantasia 2000 clip)

The sound quality (Elgar's March) on this YouTube clip is not excellent, but otherwise it's a very good presentation of the entire six-minute flood segment of Disney's Fantasia. There are many little details that can easily flash by you if you only watch it only once: the expressions on the animals' faces when the lightning strikes behind them; the dragons and unicorns laughing in disbelief; the rabbits that have multiplied by the end of the clip.

For a very interesting discussion (with still shots) of Disney's treatments of Noah's story, click here (HT: Higgaion and Bible Films Blog).

Friday, October 13, 2006

Discussion with Arachnophilia

I am thankful to Arachnophilia for engaging my series on Afterlife in the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament. To see the discussion over on the Higgaion site, click here.

Arachnophilia raises the problem of how we could know that the beliefs in the Hereafter that I have been treating do not merely come in at a late period, for example, when Scriptures such as Isaiah and the DTR history were first appearing.

Well, the 8th century BCE is not all that late! But, be that as it may, that was not my response. The following is the response that I wrote. Comments welcome, of course.

Okay, I see. I wasn't sure at what level I should try to respond. Allow me two quick responses. First, the lack of mention may mean very little. For example, there is very little mention in Scripture of such key parts of life as, e.g., toileting, sexual technique, and betrothal etiquette. Afterlife seems to be one of these types of subjects, which either go without saying or which people avoid speaking about in polite company. Second, when texts such as Isaiah and the DTR History do crystallize in writing, they seem to be about the task of tempering and (re)directing extant local/village traditions about the afterlife. Deut 26:14 is a great example--an archaic practice is allowed but given new restrictions. The beliefs about the Hereafter which I uncover align perfectly with old Israel's segmentary organization along genealogical lines. I admit to being fully persuaded---these beliefs are ancient. What the covenantal traditions of Torah do is temper and (re)direct them along the lines of purity and khesed, etc., as I mention in my series. Thanks for letting me respond! --Steve

Does Bible Present Us With Myths? A Response to Peter Enns.

Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation
I am finally enjoying reading Peter Enns' book, Inspiration and Incarnation, about which I had a brief post earlier this fall. Prof. Chris Heard also has a review of Enns in his Higgaion blog. The book appears to be selling like hot-cakes (under 50,000 now in the Amazon rankings). Congratulations Peter!

Peter Enns raises core hermeneutic issues that all serious theological thinkers need to wrestle with, and it is well worth blogging on at least a few of them here.

Peter Enns has a very informed and very intelligent discussion in the first half of the book on the topic of the "Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern Literature." He does a superb job of identifying why this topic constitutes a "problem." In fact the topic has been, and continues to be for many, wrought with pain.

I want to differ with Enns when he joins the majority guild opinion that we should understand chunks of Bible as Myth. On p. 53, Enns asks why the opening chapters of Genesis look so much like myth. His answer: Because they are myth. Many of his readers are shocked!

Enns writes, "Different cultures had different myths, but the point is that they all had them."

I would argue, in contrast to Enns, that Bible makes a critical appropriation of myth. Myth appears in Bible only in "broken," "demythologized," or "faded" form. To be sure, Bible uses mythic images to help convey deep truths, but incorporates them only with what Jacob Milgrom calls "clipped wings."

I know most of the guild will resist me on this tooth and nail, when I maintain that Bible lacks the genre "myth," but I am sticking to this assertion. One of the best books on this is still Brevard Childs, Myth and Reality in the Old Testament. I also have Hermann Gunkel and Gene Tucker on my side. For a good, brief summary of all of this, see Tucker's Form Criticism of the Old Testament, pp. 26-29.

But why does Bible keep mythology at arms length? Discussion to be continued...

Thursday, October 12, 2006

On Coffee...

"As soon as coffee is in your stomach, there is a general commotion. Ideas begin to move...similes arise, the paper is covered. Coffee is your ally and writing ceases to be a struggle." --- de Balzac (1799-1859)