Friday, June 27, 2014


I'm at various points in my scripture reading.  Luke with the kids, Numbers 25 in my Hebrew and Greek OT reading, and I'm also rereading the Book of Mormon, in a facsimile of the first printing.  Sometimes, differences between it and the current edition catch my eye.

Like this one.  Without the plain and precious things, the current edition says we are in a state of "blindness," but the 1830 printing says "woundedness."  I kind of like "woundedness."

Thursday, May 29, 2014

All Manner of Sin and Blasphemy

I'm reading the New Testament with the kids, and tonight noticed something striking, which I will offer up without comment.

In Matthew 12, the warning that sins against the Holy Ghost (the "holy spirit" in Greek, and remember that, although "spirit," pneuma, is neuter in Greek, in Hebrew it would be the feminine ruach) will not be forgiven is followed immediately by a reference to the tree with good fruit that elsewhere Matthew identifies as lying behind the strait and narrow gate.

In Mark 3, the parallel passage transitions immediately into the question who is Jesus' mother?

See also 1 Nephi 11.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Gifts of God

Since I'm not teaching Sunday School, I haven't updated this blog recently. I continue to read the MT and the LXX side by side. Today I read Leviticus 21, and was floored. 

Where the MT has "bread of God," the LXX consistently has "gifts of God."  This connects to Matthew 6 and 7 and shows that the bread of God brought out by the Melchizedek priest in Matt 6 was a gift, that is to say, an endowment. 

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Bookshelf: the Divine Woman II

Two more books I came across in reorganizing my shelves that touch on Israel's Divine Woman in different ways:

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

I Will Write

Exodus 34 shows us something spectacular and unappreciated about the religion of Moses.

First, Moses' ascension to the mountain (he spends 40 days fasting in the presence of the Lord) results in him having the appearance of God.  In his descent, he shines.

Second, in Moses' time on the mountain, he performs the tasks that God performs.  The first time around, God speaks the ten commandments and then He writes them with His own finger.  When He invites Moses up, God says that God will write the commandments again.  Then, in what seems like a craftsman's apprenticeship, Moses remains in the presence of the Lord and writes the commandments himself.

On the mountain, Moses becomes divine.  Does this shed light on Jesus' 40 days fasting in the wilderness?

Friday, April 25, 2014

Bookshelf: Deuteronomy

We've talked in class about the theory that Deuteronomy is a document created late in the Monarchy by assembling earlier sources and writing new material in the (fictitious) name of Moses, in order to define and propagandize a revolutionary movement that centralized religious authority and changed the nature of official Israelite religion, writing over the stories of the patriarchs and claiming that the things they did (building their own altars, performing their own sacrifices, worshipping at high places and sacred trees, entering into sacred places, and above all, seeing God) were pagan Canaanite acts.

This theory (in multiple variants) is at the bedrock bottom of modern biblical criticism.  That doesn't mean it's right, but it's also consistent with Nephi's horrible account of the rewriting of the Israelite record (the revisionists remove plain and precious things from the record; the tree that is the city Jerusalem and also the Virgin mother is the most precious thing), so we should take it seriously.

To date, this understanding has had approximately zero impact on Mormon Sunday Schools.  If you want to explore it, your on your own; so here are some books to start with:

Again, there are many more books on this key topic.  These are just the ones I own.  A good introduction to the Old Testament (by "good" I really mean not tied to any church, but especially not Evangelical) will also give you some background.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Every One Which Sought the Lord

In class and on this blog we have seen repeatedly that the religion of the patriarchs is the religion of meeting God.  This same religion continues into the Mosaic period, at least as recounted in Exodus.  Anyone of the camp of Israel can seek the Lord; they do it in the tabernacle, which is named in Hebrew 'ohel mo'ed.  This is sometimes translated as the Tent of the Congregation, but can also be read the Tent of Meeting.  Meeting whom?  Meeting God.

Exodus 33 also provides us an image that is echoed in Benjamin's speech (and which I think is more relevant comparison than Lot and Sodom).

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Bookshelf: the Divine Woman

Here are some excellent books on the subject of Israel's Divine Woman.  Shame that none of them are written by Mormons.

There are many others on the subject; these are just the books that happen to be in my library.

These are not fringe voices or fringe ideas.  Mainstream biblical scholarship (by which I mean scholarship not tied to seminaries, and specifically scholarship that is not Evangelical), in part because of the force of archaeological evidence, is increasingly accepting the idea that Israel knew a divine mother as well as a divine father.

This should not surprise us.  We have Nephi and Eliza R. Snow.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Come Up to Me in the Mount

I have noted before in class, and also in Plain and Precious Things, I think Exodus 24 shows a feast in the temple, the same feast with the Lord that is shown in Psalm 23, Genesis 14, Matthew 6, and 1 Nephi 8.

What I only noticed on this re-reading (this is why I have to read this stuff over and over again; I am dense) is that the feast of Exodus 24 happens in three-part sacred space, and the feast is in the middle of the three parts, exactly as in the Sermon on the Mount (where Matthew 5 is the first room, Matthew 6 is the second, and Matthew 7 is the third).

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Bookshelf: Cornelis Van Dam

Cornelis Van Dam's recent monograph The Urim and Thummim: A Means of Revelation in Ancient Israel is a great resource for understanding the UT in the OT.  It also opens up certain Book of Mormon passages: if you look closely, you'll see that, although the UT isn't mentioned, a couple of episodes in Alma track with the language of UT use exactly (high priest, gift of prophecy, national crisis, inquire of the Lord, possible indications of use in secluded / consecrated space, etc.), suggesting that the Nephites used the Urim and Thummim not only to translate, but also to make military decisions.  See, e.g., Alma 16:5-6 and Alma 43:23-24.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Three Times a Year

Exodus 23 has some interesting glimpses into what the religion of Israel was before the reformers got hold of it.

Exodus 23:14-17 sets out the requirement that three times a year the men of Israel went to the temple.  Even as the KJV translates it, the fact that they appear in the presence of the Lord three times a year is interesting.  But since "presence" is literally pen, "face," and "appear" could also be read "see," there's an even more provocative possibility: that three times a year, the men of Israel saw the face of the Lord.

Exodus 23:25 is also very suggestive.  To "serve" here is 'avadtem, meaning worship in liturgy, perform ordinances.  What ordinance is it?  It appears to be an ordinance in which the Lord will bless the people's bread and water (cf. Matthew 6).  The LXX here adds "wine," suggesting that the Greek-speaking Jews of Alexandria knew that this was a specific ordinance being referred to, and that ordinance, as they knew it, was a feast of bread and wine.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Bookshelf: Bible Dictionaries

Our Bible Dictionary is a work of scholarship.  It has the great advantage of including information from the other standard works, and the serious limitations of short length, committee authorship, and the necessity of maintaining a strictly orthodox point of view at all times (being published, as it is, by the church).  Here are some other English Bible Dictionaries you might consult, for longer, broader-ranging articles, with more diverse viewpoints:

The who's-yer-daddy of English BDs is the Anchor Bible Dictionary.  Six volumes, authoritative, expensive.  If you don't have the will to plunk down $300 for a used copy, you can always consult it in the library when you have a specific research project.

Smaller but more affordable is the HarperCollins BD.  I have and use this one.  Its advantages over the Anchor are portability, accessibility (it's written less for the scholar and more for the general user), and much more illustration.

I don't have the Eerdmans, but they're a reputable publisher doing mainstream scholarship, so this is probably a good one.

Regardless of which one you consult, remember that any article you look up is written by a scholar, and subject to that scholar's views and limitations.  Dictionaries aren't always right, but they can be a good first source to consult.  The larger the dictionary, the longer the articles, and the more the articles will point out disagreeing points of view and primary sources.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Shall Surely Make Restitution

Exodus 22 contains a number of laws governing situations in which one Israelite will be required to make restitution to another (for instance, if your animal gets into someone else's field (v. 4), if a fire on your land spreads to a neighbor's (v. 5), if an animal in your care is stolen (v. 11)).

In English, this stuff is dry and doesn't seem relevant, but a look at the Hebrew shows something interesting.  "Restitution" comes from the root SH-L-M, and the repeated phrases in Exodus 22 are yeshalem (he shall make restitution) and shalem yeshalem (he's really going to make restitution, emphatic).  Restitution is paying back, making whole, redeeming.

This is really interesting, because I think that Matthew 5:48 in Hebrew, as Nephi knew it, had people pronounced shalems as they transitioned to the second room of the temple.  With Exodus 22 as the background, one of the associations the initiates made must have been that they were becoming redeemers.  Similarly, Melchizedek, melekh shalem, must have been heard to be the redeeming king, as well as the initiated king and the peaceable king.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Bookshelf: Paul Hanson

"Apocalyptic" is a scholarly category that's very interesting.  It takes its name from the Revelation of John (apocalypsis is the Greek word for "revelation"), and Revelations has heavily influenced scholarly thinking and writing about this category of books / beliefs / social groups.  I don't talk about this stuff much in class because I think we have a better way to approach the same subject -- from the practitioners' side, rather than the after the fact scholarly guesses trying to figure out what the practitioners were thinking about.  In other words, I prefer Nephi's "visionary men" to scholars' "apocalyptic conventicles."

But once you're clear on the limitations of scholarship, literature on apocalyptic can be very enlightening.  Paul Hanson's The Dawn of Apocalyptic is classic and seminal.  Hanson looks for the origin of the people writing literature like Revelations, Daniel, Ezekiel, 1 Enoch, and so on, and he finds it in Lehi's day, among disciples of the prophet Isaiah, whom he even calls "visionaries."  Pretty good, for a Gentile.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Staff of the Gods

(The church website is down as I write this, so I won't have the usual links.  I'm not going to come back and add them later, so you'll just have to look the verses up yourself.)

I mentioned in class and have written elsewhere that the Melchizedek priest bears a staff (see Psalms 110 and 23, as well as the "rod" of 1 Nephi 8, and elsewhere).  The staff imagery in the Book of Exodus is really interesting.

When the Lord commissions Moses from the burning bush, He asks Moses "What's that in your hand?" and Moses says "A staff" (Exodus 4:2).  Not my staff, just a staff.  That's interesting, because it leaves open the possibility that the Lord has just given the staff to Moses.  This possibility becomes an outright probability when we read Exodus 4:20 and 17:9, both of which call this same staff matteh haElohim.  The KJV translates this as "the staff of God," but for grammatical reasons (the ha is the article "the," which is unnecessary in front of a singular name), a better reading is "the staff of the gods."  The Lord gives Moses the staff of the Gods -- He confers on Moses the Melchizedek priesthood.

The appearance of this staff is especially interesting in Exodus 17.  In a battle against Amalek, Moses' role is to stand on top of a hill (= temple?) holding the staff in his hands.  There he sits on a Rock (enthroned like God on the Foundation Stone) with helpers (Cherubim) to his left and right.  The image here is of the Lord going to war with his people enthroned on the Ark of the Covenant, as He does for instance in 1 Samuel 4.  When he holds the staff of office, Moses is Melchizedek / the Lord.

Numerous passage connect this staff with serpents, suggesting maybe that it was a caduceus.  See Exodus 4:3-4, 7:8-10; Numbers 21:49 (in connection with which, John 3:14 and 1 Nephi 17:41), and Isaiah 14:29 (in which a murdered (righteous) priest is equated with a broken staff, which is also a defeated serpent).

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Who's the Man?

In Moses 7:35, God the Father seems to provide several names for himself.  Two of them are "Man" names, and they're both fascinating.

In Hebrew, "Holiness" may be two things: qodesh or qedusha. In addition to other meanings, qodesh is a name of the temple ("Holiness to the Lord" and "The House of the Lord" are identical statements), and qodesh qodashim, the Holy of Holies, really means Holiness of Holinesses.  So if God is naming himself Ish Qodesh, the Man of Holiness, it might mean The Man of the Temple.

Qedusha, another word translatable as "Holiness," can also mean "the sacred female one."  Now this starts to get really interesting, because in Hebrew the word for "man," ish, can also mean "husband."  So if the Father is introducing himself as Ish Qedusha, he might be saying he's the Husband of the Divine Woman.

That this latter interpretation is likely is suggested by the other "Man" name he gives himself: "Man of Counsel" in Hebrew is probably Ish Etza, the Husband of the Tree-Lady.  Ish Qedusha and Ish Etza would be parallel statements, connecting us into the imagery of 1 Nephi 11 (the white and beautiful Virgin is the white and beautiful tree), Isaiah 5:18-20 (the Tree of the Holy One of Israel is removed with ropes from the Holy of Holies, leaving it a dark cave), and others.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Bookshelf: Othmar Keel

Othmar Keel's book The Symbolism of the Biblical World is a classic (40+ years old now) that I have only discovered in recent weeks.  It's full of nuggets that make amazing sense in light of the Visionary Men Paradigm.

In The Goodness in the Mysteries and also in class, discussing the Sermon on the Mount, I suggested that the relationship between Nephi's Visionary Men and the Secret Combinations is not casual -- as shown by their contrasting teachings on oaths, they are polar opposites.  So I enjoyed this passage in Keel:
Besides the entirely private enemy (enmity based on rivalry) arising out of some specified personal affair (dispute over an inheritance, over a woman, over an honorary post, etc.), every community knows a type of enemy which represents, as it were, the antipole to what the community recognizes as good and desirable and continuously threatens the same... Enemies of this sort are by their nature carriers of all that is subversive and evil.  The view which a particular group or culture holds of its enemies is crucial to an understanding of that group or culture.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Bookshelf: Lester Grabbe

The writing of ancient Israel's history is in a state of high agitation right now, that might even be called a crisis.  Major scholars differ over the dating of historical events by centuries, as well as over whether crucial events and persons are historical or legendary.

Lester L. Grabbe summarizes the state of the debate in his recent book Ancient Israel: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It?  As you read this and other books on the challenges relating to Israel's history, it's important to think clearly about the data the Book of Mormon provides.  In some cases (e.g., 1 Nephi 1-5), Nephi is a witness to events in Jerusalem.  In others, he demonstrates that certain texts existed by his time (e.g., Isaiah 2-14).  In still others, he tells us that certain ideas were known by Nephi's day, whether or not those ideas are actually historically accurate (for instance, see Jacob's remarks on David and Solomon -- these don't prove that David and Solomon existed, only that Jacob thought they did, or at least he and his audience knew them as figures Jacob could use as examples in a sermon, proverbial for their numbers of wives and concubines).

Grabbe offers the following "summary of the principles" to be followed in writing the history of Israel (p. 219):

  • All potential sources should be considered.
  • Preference should be given to original sources.
  • The longue duree needs always to be kept in mind.
  • Each episode or event has to be judged on its own merits.
  • All reconstructions are provisional.
  • All reconstructions have to be argued for.

Monday, March 10, 2014

This Shall Be a Token unto Thee

I have suggested above that the Hebrew 'ot, meaning "sign" or "token" appears in number of contexts connected with priesthood, in other words, that the priests themselves were or bore the tokens.  We saw this in the creation account, in the covenant of the rainbow, in the story of Cain, and a propos of the Virgin and her sons.

The same idea appears in the story of the burning bush.  God tells Moses that the token of his calling will be priestly service on what Exodus calls (in the Hebrew) the "mountain of the Gods."

Saturday, March 8, 2014


For another three weeks or so, there's a film called Jerusalem playing at Thanksgiving Point.  It's worth seeing for many reasons, two of which tie into things we've discussed in class:
  1. Shalem.  The film says that the name Jerusalem is Jebusite, and means "City of Shalem," Shalem being a Jebusite deity.  This is one theory, and an interesting one -- from our point of view, the most interesting thing is the use of Shalem (the complete one, the perfect one, the initiated one) as a divine name / title.
  2. The Rock of Matthew 7 is explained, discussed, and shown.  This alone is worth the modest price of admission.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Bookshelf: 1 Enoch

If you're going to get into the extra-biblical books, 1 Enoch is the place to start.  This book was held to be scripture by lots of ancient Christians -- including Jude, who quotes from it -- and by Ethiopian Christians to this day.

If you don't want to get 1 Enoch (it's called 1 Enoch because there are a 2 Enoch and a 3 Enoch; 1 Enoch is also the Ethiopic Apocalypse of Enoch) in a big anthology, there's a recent standalone translation by George Nickelsburg and JamesVanderKam.  The same guys also have a two volume (one and two) commentary on 1 Enoch, well worth the read.

Margaret Barker's first two books, The Older Testament and The Lost Prophet, are about how the earliest Christians new a different Old Testament than we have today... an Old Testament that included, among other things, 1 Enoch.  More about Margaret later.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The God of Jacob

The Israelites, including in the time of Jesus and also including the Nephite branch, often identify themselves as connected with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  So who is the God of Jacob?

The blessing of Ephram and Manasseh identifies him interestingly.  Jacob's God is one:

  • In whose presence a person can walk
  • Who is a shepherd (the KJV phrase "which fed me" is better translated "who shepherds me"); compare with Psalm 23; and
  • Who is a redeeming angel.

Friday, February 28, 2014

The Herald of the Gods

This is a fragment from a Ugaritic epic called Kirta (as translated in Stories from Ancient Canaan):

El has heard your speech--it is like El's:
You are wise, like the Bull, the Kind One.
Call to Ilisha, the herald god,
Ilisha, the herald of Baal's house,
and his wives, the herald goddesses...

At Ugarit, Ilisha was the "herald of Baal's house."  In the worship of the visionary men, Elijah preceded the Lord as Dawn and called those who waited for him in darkness to make straight his paths.  Elijah (Elias) was Yahweh's herald.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Lady Under the Tree

One of Israel's great heroes from the time of the judges is Deborah.  She's a prophetess, and she dwells under a tree.  The KJV also says she's the "wife of Lapidoth," but that may be a mistranslation.  As Methodist scholar Margaret Barker has pointed out (Margaret will merit her own bookshelf entries at some point, for sure), "Lapidoth" nowhere else appears as a man's name, and it doesn't look like a man's name -- it looks like a feminine plural, meaning "torches" or "flashing lights.  This makes Deborah the prophetess, the "woman of flashing lights," who dwells under a tree.  All of this is really, really interesting.

It turns out there's another Deborah, and I, at least, had totally forgotten her.  She only appears in one verse in the Bible, when she dies.  We're told three things about her:

  1. She is Rachel's wetnurse (and since Benjamin isn't born yet, this can only mean that she nursed Joseph, which ties her to the royal lineage of the northern kingdom and also to the ancestry of the Book of Mormon prophets).
  2. She is buried under a tree (in the LXX, she dies under the tree -- very slight difference), in an event so important the tree merits a name... it's a special tree.  
  3. Her name is Deborah.  This name is interesting, because it's the Hebrew word for "honey-bee."  Here we get into a whole bunch of old and interesting associations, including the titles of Pharaoh (one of which, nswt-bjtj, means "he of the sedge and the bee"), the story of Joseph and Asenath (Joseph's bride is covered with honey bees... scroll down to chapter 16) and the packing priorities of the Jaredites.
All this looks to me like one of the ancient symbols of Israel's divine woman (along with the sacred tree, the tree of life) was the honey bee.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Bookshelf: Henri Frankfort

Henri Frankfort's classic Kingship and the Gods is another book on Egypt you must read, especially if you're looking for the ordinances and spiritual ideas underpinning what's going on in the Book of Mormon and the Old Testament.

Frankfort compares Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Israelite ideas about kingship.  I think his analysis of Israelite ideas is misguided, in that he relies too much on one point of view present in ancient Israel's history, and that is the late and revisionist point of view of the Deuteronomist.  The real interest here is Egypt: look for what he has to say about the Egyptian rites of kingship, including temple feasts of bread and beer and the divine embrace across the temple veil between the living king and the dead one.

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Temple Roots of Tithing

The first appearance in the OT of the institution of tithing is in Genesis 14.  Abram pays tithing to Melchizedek ("my king is righteousness"), the shalem (peaceable) king (Alma knows this pun), after a feast of bread and wine.  This is a temple passage, also shown in the Sermon on the Mount: those who hunger and thirst after righteousness (Melchizedek) are filled when they share a feast with God (the Lord, Melchizedek).

Jacob also pays tithing.  He commits to it after an experience in which he sees God and angels ascending and descending to and from "heaven," sets up a standing stone and anoints it, makes the covenant of Abraham, changes the name of the place from "Ulam Luz" (the KJV mysteriously drops "Ulam," which is the name of the first room of the temple) to Beth-El (the "house of God," which he also describes as the "gate of heaven"), and agrees that God will keep him in the way and give him bread and clothing.  The result of this covenant will be shalom, "peace."  This is also manifestly a temple passage.

Finally, Malachi's famous passage about tithing is set in a context in which the Israelites are chastised for abandoning the Lord's true pattern of worship.  They are promised (warned?) that the Lord still appears, and that he will do so, as he has always done, in his temple, preceded by an angel priest.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Bookshelf: Israel and Egypt

Ugarit is Israel's nearest neighbor in space and time, but Egypt was also hugely influential.  William Dever argues for the importance in the makeup of Israel of a group of people identifying themselves as the descendants of Joseph, and bearing Egyptian traditions... Nephi tells us the same thing.  So it behooves us to look a little bit at Egypt, and especially at Egypt during the period of Israel's history.

I suggest Kenneth Kitchen's The Third Intermediate Period in Egypt and Donald Redford's Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times.  You'll find Book of Mormon names, political patterns, and the background for the Nephites' concerns about priestcraft as a form of government.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Peace and Salvation

In Genesis 26, the description of the covenant-making feast between Abimelech and Isaac contains an intriguing translation point.  In verses 29 and 31, the word shalom appears, translated by the KJV both times as "peace."

Provocatively, the LXX translates the first instance as eirene ("peace"), but translates the second instead as soteria ("salvation").  This suggests that the soter ("savior"), a title the NT gives to Jesus, is the bringer of "peace," the Lord who appears in worship of the peaceable ones / the peace offerings.

Post-Script on Cain: the Angel of the Lord

The Targums are old Aramaic translations of the Hebrew Bible.  Like the LXX, they were written for ancient communities of Israelites who no longer spoke Hebrew as their native language, and like the LXX, they can differ significantly from the MT.  Sometimes the differences come because of error, but often the differences come because the translators understood the Hebrew passage differently than we do and inserted commentary, or because they were looking at a more ancient and different Hebrew text than we have today.

You can read English translations of the Targums online here.  You can also buy physical books on Amazon.

I have observed that Genesis and Moses both seem to identify Cain as a priest.  It turns out that the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan adds another element that suggests we should think of Cain this way.  At this link you can find the first six chapters of Genesis; scroll down to chapter IV and read the Targum's translation of Genesis 4:1:

And Adam knew Hava his wife, who had desired the Angel; and she conceived, and bare Kain; and she said, I have acquired a man, the Angel of the Lord.

The Angel Eve desired in the Targum was Sammael, the angel of death, who appeared in Genesis 3 beside the tree of knowledge as Eve ate.  But the man Eve acquired, the Angel of the Lord, is Cain.  Remember: stars = angels = priests.

Friday, February 7, 2014

In this Place

Genesis 22:14 is translated badly in the KJV.  The Hebrew is ambiguous, but the Greek clearly says "On the mountain, the Lord appeared."  The Hebrew can also be read this way, and some translations have done so (although other translations are worse than the KJV -- the Revised English Bible inserts the word "provided").

Two things: one, the religion of Abraham is a religion in which people see the Lord.  Two, either an appearance of the Lord happened and was not described or else the "angel of the Lord" of verse 11 is the same person as the Lord.  In fact, the Hebrew here can be read "the Angel Yahweh," and since Angel just means a messenger, that shouldn't shock us... but it may not be how we're used to reading the OT.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Israel -- the One Who Sees God

Philo makes a number of interpretations repeatedly.  One is that Israel means "the one who sees God" and therefore the "Man of Vision" or the "race that has vision" (The Confusion of Tongues, XX, XXVIII, XXXI).  For Philo, "Israel" meant the "visionary men." John Chrysostom (Homilies 58), St. Augustine (City of God 16:39), and an old Christian document called On the Origin of the World (one of the Nag Hammadi texts) know the same meaning.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Bookshelf: Philo Judaeus

Philo was an Egyptian Jew who was a generation older than Jesus.  His writings have survived, I suspect in part because we have generally asked the wrong questions when reading them, and not realized the significance of things Philo says.

Philo writes to convince educated Greeks that his religion is acceptable, and if you read his books for the argument they make, they're boring, and relevant only to classicists and maybe intellectual historians.  The interesting way to read Philo, the way we generally don't do it, is to ignore his strained analogies and instead ask what must Philo's religion be like, for this analogy to make sense?

Let me quote one excerpt, by way of example:

...if there be any as yet unfit to be called a Son of God, let him press to take his place under God's First-born, the Word, who holds the eldership among the angels, their ruler as it were.  And many names are his, for he is called "the Beginning," and the Name of God, and His Word, and the Man after His image...  (from The Confusion of Tongues, XXVIII)

God has a firstborn son among many sons, who are the angels, and among whose numbers people can aspire to be.  This firstborn Son is also called the Word and the Name, and appears to be in some way connected with Adam.  Whatever Philo believes, it isn't Judaism, as we know it.

You can get a cheap one-volume English translation of all Philo's writings.  The Loeb Classical Library also publishes bilingual Greek-English editions -- Philo fills ten volumes.

Friday, January 31, 2014

The Religion of Abraham

We'll get into Deuteronomy at some point, but as we're reading Moses / Genesis now, it's probably worth stopping a moment to summarize the religion of Abraham, as we see it here.  Here's a non-exhaustive list of observations:

  1. Abraham hears God's voice and also sees Him.  
  2. Abraham's God also communicates through dreams.
  3. Abraham builds altars at the places where he sees God.   The Hebrew text uses the technical term maqom to refer to these sacred sites -- the word simply means "place," but Deuteronomy specifically forbids maqoms of sacrifice other than the Jerusalem temple.
  4. Abraham knows sacred trees (what is translated here as the "plains" of Mamre is really the "oaks" or "terebinths" of Mamre).  
  5. Under one such sacred tree, Abraham receives three holy men as visitors, shares bread with them and washes their feet.
  6. Abraham makes covenants with God.  As a result of these covenants, he receives a new name.
  7. For Abraham, astronomy has a sacred dimension.  He sees the stars in a visionary context, and the stars are people (his priestly descendants).
  8. Abraham has a son by a "handmaid." We already noted interesting things about royal, tented, status-conferring Sarah and his relationship with her.
  9. Abraham knows the sacrifice of a son on a sacred mountain.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Bookshelf: Gregorio del Olmo Lete

Before I leave Ugarit, I have to recommend another book on the subject.  Gregorio del Olmo Lete's book reconstructing Ugaritic religion from its texts is not as easy to read or as accessible as Smith's work, but it has the great virtue of including lots of translated texts.  This makes it easier for us (bearing in mind the difficulty of translation) to make our own judgments as to what the folks at Ras Shamra were up to.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Importance of Being Sarai

There are many hints in the Genesis account of Abraham's life that Sarai (later Sarah) is much more important than is explicitly stated.  Let me set out a few:

  1. Sarai/Sarah's name means "princess" or "my princess."  This is interesting in itself, but doubly interesting because Abraham's brother married Milcah, whose name means "queen."  What are we really being shown here, that these two brothers marry royal women?
  2. At the same time that Abram's name is changed to Abraham, Sarai's name is changed to Sarah.  A change in name reflects a change in status, for instance, a change in priesthood status.  Abraham isn't the only special one in this little family.
  3. There's an oddity about Abraham's tent.  In both Genesis 12 and Genesis 13, the King James tells us that Abraham pitched "his tent."  Oddly, the original Hebrew in both cases clearly says "her tent," and the rabbis felt so strongly that this was mistaken that they inserted vowels to change the reading.  Was the tent originally Sarai's?  Interestingly enough, there is also a camouflaged "her tent" in Genesis 9 -- it's the place where Noah gets drunk.  The fact that "tents" so commonly stand in for temples makes these passages extra provocative.
  4. Sarai is associated with the idea of goodness.  She has to lie to Pharaoh so that "it may be well" with Abram, yetav.  She lies, and Pharaoh "entreated Abram well," hetiv.  Tov is "good," and appears in the early chapters of Genesis in curious connections.  The first thing created is light, and it is tov.  Havilah, somehow connected with the Garden of Eden, is the land of "good" gold. And the tree in the Garden is also "good."  These chapters, so close together, suggest an association among Sarai, the Garden of Eden, the light of creation, and Havilah, the land of good gold.  How important is this idea of "goodness" to Nephi?  Seems important.
  5. There's an oddity in the marriage, again involving royalty, and also involving ambivalence between brother and husband and a swap of persons, perhaps with a pointer connecting us with Egypt.  I don't know what's going on here, but the upshot seems to be that because of Sarah, Abraham becomes a shepherd and also gets followers -- the men are called 'avadim, which can mean "workers" but may also indicate ordinance-performing priests, and the women are called shefachot, a word the dictionary tells us is synonymous with "handmaid," a word used to describe the mothers of both Samuel and Jesus, for instance.
Who is Sarai?  I don't know, but the OT tells us that she's royal, she's priestly, she's associated with temples, and she confers elevated status.  So it looks like Abram married well.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Bookshelf: Mark S. Smith

Ugarit is Israel's nearest neighbor in space and time of which we have significant archaeological data, and also texts.  Since most of the archaeological discoveries at Ras Shamra (Ugarit) came after 1970, Ugarit-related material is one of many reasons why early 20th century scholarship is systematically out of date (see also The Dead Sea Scrolls, the Nag Hammadi Library, the Bar Kochba texts, etc.).

Mark S. Smith is a top guy in Ugaritic studies who also happens to be an accessible and fairly prolific writer.  I recommend at least these two books of his: The Early History of God and The Origins of Biblical Monotheism are both about the fact that underlying the Bible as we have it in its final edited state is an earlier Israelite religion that looked a lot more like what we see at Ugarit, being not obsessively monotheistic but instead possessed of a divine family.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

This Is the Token

I suggested earlier that various texts use the word 'sign' or 'mark' (Hebrew 'ot or Greek semeion) to refer to priests (specifically, Genesis 1, Genesis 4, and Isaiah 8).  Now Genesis 9 give us an interesting test, where it identifies the 'token' (again, 'ot and semeion -- the English translation is different, but the Hebrew and Greek are the same term as the other texts) of the eternal covenant (brit 'olam), as a bow set in the clouds.  A rainbow.

Cloud imagery is common of texts set inside the temple: for starters, the Mount of Transfiguration, Daniel 7, and Lehi's dream.  This reflects the incense altar that was set in the hekal, the middle room of Solomon's Temple.  But are there any texts that corroborate the idea that a rainbow might refer to a priestly figure?

Turns out there's at least one.  Chapter 50 of Sirach, a book preserved in the LXX but not the MT, shows the coming forth of a priest named Simon son of Onias in a temple setting (scholars think on the Day of Atonement).  Verses 5-7 read like this: " he was glorified as he spun around the shrine, as he exited from the house of the veil.  Like a morning star in the midst of a cloud, like the full moon in the days of a feast, like the sun shining on the shrine of the most high, like the rainbow gleaming in clouds of glory..."

We have: the specified location in the temple; clouds; comparison of the priest with astral bodies, like 1 Nephi 1 (stars = angels = priests); and the identification of the priest with the rainbow.

So I think the message of Genesis 9 is not that as long as you see rainbows, God won't flood the earth, but when rainbows cease, we might be in trouble (this was the folklore I knew as a kid, and believe me, I looked for rainbows with great anxiety).  I think the message of Genesis 9 is that the sign, 'ot, of the eternal covenant, is that the Lord appears to his people in the temple.  In ordinances, he does this in the person of his authorized messenger, the Melchizedek priest.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Bookshelf: The Septuagint

The ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament is important.  Since it's likely to come up in class and will definitely come up in your study, I want to make sure you know a few things about it, and point you to where you can find an English version.

It's called the Septuagint (sep-TOO-uh-jint), from the Greek word for "seventy," and is therefore also identified by the Roman numeral for 70: LXX.  The number 70 is an old Hebrew stereotype meaning the whole world, or sometimes the world outside Israel (the idea being that there are seventy nations).  You can see this idea in both the Old Testament and the New.  The LXX is the earliest known translation of the Old Testament into another language -- some parts of it are pre-Jesus, even as early as 200 B.C.

The really interesting thing about this old Greek translation is that it's often very different from the Hebrew, in two ways: First, it contains books or parts of books that aren't preserved in Hebrew, but were considered by the ancient Jewish translators part of scripture (for instance, the Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sirach or the extra chapters of Daniel and Jeremiah).

Second, the LXX contains some very different readings from the traditional Hebrew text of the Bible (the Masoretic text, or MT).  For instance, Deuteronomy 32:8 in the MT says that God divided the world up according to the sons of Israel, but in the LXX the same verse says that God divided the world according to the sons of God... these are radically different ideas.

To really come to grips with the differences between the LXX and the MT and why they matter, you'll need some Greek and Hebrew (there's my little pitch, again).  But for starters, you can find the New English Translation of the Septuagint in its entirety online, here (I know, the web-page looks a little hokey, but the LXX translation itself is good, and downloadable in .pdf).  You can also buy a physical copy of the book.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Before the Flood

I'm doing my OT reading this year out of the Hebrew and Greek versions of the OT, side by side.  This is a large undertaking for me, which involves getting up early and committing real time, but so far I'm on track.  The immediate fruit has been to see that the vocabulary in the first seven chapters of the OT is heavy in terms that have priestly and temple significance, even if that doesn't always come through in translation.  There's way too much to capture in this blog, but let me throw just out a few points:

  1. The ritual actions in Genesis 3 are unmistakable, but maybe we haven't thought all the way through them.  For one thing, the garment of 'skin' in Genesis 3:21 is a garment of 'or in Hebrew, spelled 'ayin-vav-resh (the names of the three Hebrew letters in the word).  Well, 'or, spelled aleph-vav-resh, means 'light.'  These two words are pronounced identically in modern Hebrew, and have always been pronounced very similarly.  God clothes Eve and Adam in garments of light.  In verse 22, "Yahweh of the Gods" pronounces that "Man has become like one of us."
  2. In the same segment, Adam is cursed that he will eat his bread by the sweat of his brow.  Eating bread and being dressed by God are both temple ritual actions, and connected in the Sermon on the Mount (more about this in the next class, for those of you who don't already know what I'm talking about).  This suggests that the curse is the sweat, not the bread part.  Similarly, it suggests that childbirth is not a curse -- the curse is the sorrow.  If anything, the implication is that childbirth, at least in some circumstances, is a sacred act.
  3. Adam is commanded to 'work' ('avad in Hebrew) and 'keep' (shamar) the Garden.  These are temple-priestly verbs -- 'avad means to perform ordinances, and shamar means to keep covenants.  It is very striking, then, that the same words reappear in the story of Cain.  Cain, first of all, is given to Eve by the Lord (like Samuel and Jesus), punning on the sound of the name 'Cain' in Hebrew (Hebrew prophets, including Nephi, thrive on puns and wordplay).  In Hebrew, Cain is an 'oved of the earth -- not a 'tiller,' but a 'worker,' using the same word that means 'perform ordinances.'  Interestingly, his brother Abel is a shepherd, a common image for priests and kings.  In terms of vocabulary, the story we're told here is about a rivalry between two priests.  After Cain kills Abel, he justifies himself by asking 'am I my brother's keeper?', where 'keeper' is shomer.  Cain is an 'oved, a temple priest, but he does not shamar, keep his covenants. 
  4. After this incident, God marks Cain with a 'sign' ('ot in Hebrew).  Elsewhere, the heavenly bodies are said to be or provide an 'ot.  So are the Virgin and her sons.  Here's another piece of vocabulary for understanding the Visionary Men: stars = angels = priests.  Nephi knows this vocabulary.  Cain is a priest who falls from his station, but who still should not be killed, because of his priestly status.
Keep up the study!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Bookshelf: Menachem Haran

The classic book on the temples of ancient Israel is Menachem Haran's Temples and Temple Service in Ancient Israel.  It's a little dated now, so you'll want to supplement it with recent archaeological studies that touch on sites like Arad and Kuntillet 'Ajrud -- Dever's The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel is a good one for that.

But Haran's book will get you a good overview of the Tabernacle and Solomon's Temple.  It will also get you into some of the issues relating to the conflicts among different priesthoods in ancient Israel, and the composition of the Old Testament.  Haran shows his real integrity and excellent when he touches on points he can't explain... for instance, that there are drinking vessels in Solomon's Temple, and no one quite knows what they're for (pp. 216-217).  Kings and Chronicles don't tell us anything about it, but there was a feast of bread and wine inside Solomon's Temple.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Slide Deck for January 5, 2014 Lesson

These are the slides I'm presenting in Sunday School today.  Putting them into PNG format has killed the animations -- in particular, this seriously degrades slide 3.  Sorry about that.

Friday, January 3, 2014

How to Read an Ancient Text

William S. Dever provides this list as the "traditional assumptions in approaching ancient texts... [:]

1. A text is a product of a particular time, place, culture, language, and it must be placed back in that context to be understood at all.

2. A text is written by an author with a specific intent, usually for a specific audience.

3. An original 'meaning' is inherent and is expressed in language that is both deliberate and potentially intelligible.

4. The reader's first task in approaching a text is to place himself and his situation in the background, attempting to be as 'objective' as possible so as to be open to the text's original (i.e., 'true') meaning in its own terms as far as possible.

5. Methodically, there is no substitute for mastery of the text's original language, geographical and cultural setting, and the light that other contemporary texts may shed.

6. Since there are, at best, always personal, subjective factors at work in interpreting an ancient text, these must be acknowledged, but they may then be usefully exploited.  These factors include intuition; an educated imagination; and above all empathy, or 'positioning oneself within understanding distance.'

7. Above all, the question of the modern appropriation of the perceived meaning of the text must be kept strictly separate during the initial interpretation in fulfillment of the requirement of 'disinterestedness.'"

(William S. Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?, p. 16, emphases added by me)

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Bookshelf: William S. Dever (Archaeology)

I'm going to try to post once a week a recommendation of books bearing on Old Testament study and in particular on our class.  This is the first.

Archaeology has a lot to say about the history of ancient Israel; most of what it has to say is ignored by Biblical scholars, who are mostly really literary analysts, and nearly all of it is ignored by Sunday Schools.  Partly, this is archaeologists' fault -- the way they generally write is even drier and more inaccessible than the output of the literary guys.

William Dever is an exception.  He's punchy and readable, he sees the gap between Biblical criticism and archaeology and tries to fill it, and he knows what he's talking about.  Because he's engaged in a fierce running debate with a group of dogmatic historians who claim there was no ancient Israel as we think about (he calls them "revisionists"), sometimes he takes detours into issues I don't care very much about.  Still, I give all these books five stars and recommend you take a crack at one or two.  In that they touch on issues relating to Deuteronomy and the editing of the Bible, the origin of the Israelites, the alteration of Israel's temple religion, and the ancient suppression of Mother in Heaven (see 1 Nephi 11 and 13), they are relevant to important themes we'll talk about in class.

In Did God Have a Wife?, Dever looks at what archaeology has to say about Mother in Heaven (my words, not his).  It turns out, a lot.  Israel had a female divinity, She was different from the goddesses of the nations around Israel, and there were parties in Israel who hated Her.

In Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?, Dever examines Israel's origins.  The archaeological record gives us reason to be skeptical about some aspects of Israel's origin story (in Exodus and Joshua in particular), but confirms other aspects, including the likelihood that a "House of Joseph" group was part of Israel's ancestry and brought with it Egyptian knowledge and traditions (see, ahem, the Book of Mormon).

Others: What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? is also good, though it gets more than the others into Dever's debate with the revisionists.  The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel is another of his, and also excellent.