Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Plausibility and the Joseph story

Perhaps the most burdensome and loathed of all forms of taxation was the corvee, a tax paid through labor, on demand, by every able-bodied male in the land... From the earliest history of the Egyptian state, it was the corvee that provided the labor force for massive government projects, from quarrying of stone to the building of the pyramids and temples...   The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt by Toby Wilkinson

It was standard to assign not only peasant farmers but peasant soldiers and mercenaries to construction of public works during the seasons when few were needed for their respective duties, Wilkinson writes. Conditions for the peasant workers were astonishingly harsh, similar in many ways to the North Korean prison labor camps.

It seems conceivable (though Wilkinson steers clear of this matter) that the people living in Goshen were mercenaries who had received special, favorable treatment from the Hyksos, a semitic people who seized power in Egypt. It is not implausible that the Hyksos pharaoh's grand vizier -- chief administrator -- came from among the allied mercenaries. One can imagine that the totalitarian state was imposed by the Hyksos administrator as a means of keeping Egyptians under control and submissive. Even so, they took over a corvee system that was already well-established.

Note that the Jewish scriptures say that, at the time of Moses's birth, the pharaoh was unsympathetic to Joseph (the grand vizier) and forced the people of Goshen into the corvee system, something to which they were evidently unaccustomed. The Egyptians had rebelled and forced out the Hyksos, leaving, it is conjectured, the "Israelites" without allies and protectors.

At the very least, we see that the Bible was accurate when calling Egypt a "land of hard bondage."

Wilkinson also relates that the position of vizier, or chief executive, arose when a particularly capable aide de camp of an early pharaoh "invented" the pyramid, having a number of such statements of royal power built around Egypt (though these pyramids were dwarfed by later efforts). After this, pharaohs sought such men from among a professionalized civil service, rather than from among members of the royal family.

By the time of the Hyksos pharaohs, this custom was well established.

If we estimate that Moses led his band from Egypt during the reign of one of the Ramses', the glory days of pyramid building would have already been long past. However, the custom of impressing the lower class (including soldiers and mercenaries) into brutal corvee labor, lasting months at a time, for public works was still standard.

So, again, we see that the Bible is at least accurate insofar as positing the post of chief executive under pharaoh. 

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Flung to the lions?

Nero, according to the Roman historian Tacitus, blamed the conflagration in Rome on a small, obscure sect: the Christians. Tacitus, who disliked emperors, later exonerated the Christians. Paul the apostle was probably in Rome about the time Nero was emperor.

Nero had some Christians crucified, while others he had strait-jacketed, daubed with pitch and made into human torches in his garden (the Vatican). Still others were dressed in the skins of wild animals and exposed to packs of rapacious wild dogs and eaten alive for the entertainment of the arena crowds.

Ca. 300 B.C., Diocletian conducted a vicious pogrom against Christians.

Source: "Paul: The Mind of the Apostle" by A.N. Wilson

The Book of Revelation gives the number of the beast as 666, which, among other things, represents the name Neron Caesar. This observation is long-established and noncontroversial. However, such numerology can almost always be applied to more than one name. Yet, the use of a number may imply that the author of the book had reason to fear use of the name. He says, "let the reader understand." (The true author of most of the book is Jesus, according to the account given in Revelation.)

I found this on the internet, and it seems reasonable:

The Romans did throw people to lions on occasion, and Tertullian, writing later, remarks that the Romans were always ready to exclaim "Away with the Christians to the lion!" whenever times got tough. However, Tertullian doesn't claim he witnessed any martyrdoms-by-lion personally, and anyway he was a Christian himself. Fact is, while the Romans evidently fed Christians to animals, and people to lions, we have no source stating directly that they specifically fed Christians to lions.

"To the lions" might stand for "to the beasts," the latter being a specific Roman death sentence. Beasts included dogs, bears and lions. I would imagine that lions were rather difficult to handle and so breaking them out for the masses might be a rare "treat."
Now the fact that Roman popes were responsible for decidedly un-Christian massacres of dissidents might be seen in light of the fact that these pontiffs were usually worldly men of great political power. Curiously, the "donation of Constantine" which granted the popes worldly power turned out to be a forgery. In that document, the phrase "vicar of Christ" is found, and a numerological analysis comes up with 666.
Otherwise, that title is apparently not found for popes.

Out of Egypt

Some points concerning the historicity of the Exodus:

1. The "plagues" occurred in the correct order for natural catastrophes, which are all explicable except for the final plague taking all the first-born of Egypt. However, the phrase "first-born" may have begun as a descriptive term to refer to the young and robustly healthy. In a number of ancient cultures, the firstborn were favored with extra rations and consequently were more likely to enjoy good health. The last "plague" may very well have been the bubonic plague. In our own times, the great influenza epidemic that killed millions of people near the close of World War I tended to kill the young and healthy who hadn't been immunized by exposure to related strains, as had older adults. Still, it is clear that the compiler of the biblical account saw the last plague as payback for the reported murder of Hebrew firstborn boys, a deed done in order to thin the potential military population. Such atrocities are hardly unknown in ancient times.

2. There are Egyptian victory steles referring to the apiru (Hebrews), who were considered outlaws and raiders, and to Israel, a group or groups that at odds with the Egyptian vassal states of Canaan.

3. Moses seemingly spoke Egyptian and needed an interpreter for Hebrew, which he apparently spoke haltingly. Moses is an Egyptian name, as are the names of many of the priestly tribe of Levi. The fact that the Levites had no land and were assigned a priestly role at the shrines suggests to some that the Hebrew tribes already in Canaan reached an accord with the Mosaic band.

4. It seems plausible that an Egyptian leader might have split with the royal family or priestly caste and led a band of converts into Midian, where the moon god Sinai was, some experts say, worshiped. After a nomadic period, this group joined up with other "Hebrews" who worshiped elohim ("the gods"). Later "Elohim" became the generic term for God. Experts agree that the idea that 600,000 people escaped from Egypt is based on a misunderstanding of the development of the Hebrew word for "thousand." The band of refugees would have been in the vicinity of 6,000, it has been argued.

5. Modern research strongly suggests that the bulk of the Hebrews were actually Canaanites who fled oppression in the city-states of Canaan, which were Egyptian vassal states. Thus, these refugees could well claim that they had escaped "from Egypt." The Canaanite states were part of the Egyptian world system. These people lived under severe oppression from the elite who lived in the fortified parts of the cities. But these city-states, along with other civilized areas, fell into decline and disorder (my guess is the cause was desertification of many fertile areas due to unwise farming), and so many "slaves" (and-or serfs) literally headed for the hills. These former slaves gained considerable military prowess, making their hill enclaves somewhat defensible.

6. The story of Joshua's conquest of Canaan may have some truth to it. We now know that every 700 years(?) or so an earthquake-triggered landslide temporarily blocks the Jordan some ways upriver from the Jericho area until it has had time to form a connective channel. So it is possible Joshua and his soldiers crossed the Jordan on "dry" land. As for other accounts in the book, we may agree to a certain amount of poetic license. Very often in Hebrew scripture, the witticisms of the ancient writers come through as obvious metaphors. For example, when Joshua halted the sun, the moon and the stars in their tracks, it seems plausible that the enemy king was defeated in a terrific victory. Kings were wont to take such titles as "The Sun, Moon and Stars." (That suggestion does not deny that God has the power to do strange things with time.)

7. These hill people lived simply, having evidently smashed the idols of their oppressors. But even so, many still worshiped "the gods," kept idols and some imagined that the god Jehovah had a wife. Their houses show a strong sense of egalitarianism, and these people lived for quite some time without a king. Eventually, the incursions of the Philistines (the Vikings of their era) pressured the Israelites to get behind Saul and his chief general David. The name "Jehovah" or "Yahweh" means, it is argued, "He is," which is a form of "I am," or "I am that I am," another appellation for God. 

8. Complete monotheism took a long time to take hold among the forefathers of the Jews. For a while, Jehovah (sometimes called Elohim) was referred to as the chief of the council of the gods. I suspect that during the Persian period, some of the stronger ideas of monotheistic Zoroastrianism were incorporated into the "new Judaism," which required a single sect in order to keep peace and in order to satisfy the Persian rulers. The fact that the people of this world "see through a glass darkly" does not for me diminish the power of Jesus, which means "He saves" and "I save."  When the cohort come to arrest Jesus arrived, he asked whom they sought. When they replied, "Jesus," he answered: "I am," which caused them to stumble in confusion and darkness. 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

America as type of the New Israel

The New Israel is the body of Christ, which is to say the Spirit-born believers.

America's miraculous birth and many rescues from mortal peril imply that God has something special in mind for America, though it is true now and has always been true that the forces of darkness strive to destroy America from within, sometimes doing horrific things that no American can be proud of.

America at its best reflects the ideals of Christian brotherhood and sisterhood as espoused in the New Testament. That includes the concept of equality among brothers and sisters and freedom to seek God in spirit and in truth, rather than by some church-state system handed down from the Roman era. This libertarian streak within Protestant America had a beneficial effect on Catholicism and Judaism.

America is a nation that, under God's control, abolished the foul practice of slavery even though that practice had become entrenched. America was able to, despite great mistrust, accept the need for change as embodied in Martin Luther King, who, in the spirit of his namesake, the apostle Martin Luther, blazed a trail through a thicket of blindness.

America is a worldly projection, and type, of the New Israel, to whom all the promises of the Old Testament belong. As Jesus said, God is able to raise up children of Abraham from the stones. Those who put their trust in the God of Jesus are the true children of Abraham.

It should also be noted that Jesus warned that it was a bad idea to curse anyone, no matter what injustice had been suffered. So the promise concerning blessing and cursing associated with Israel actually applies in general. You reap what you sow, Jesus said.

Yet, perhaps that promise carries more heft when Israel is blessed or cursed. So then, if one curses America, one is on the brink of cursing the New Israel. And the Bible says that he who curses Israel will pay for that wrong. As the New Testament makes clear, that, and other, promises now apply to the true Israel, the New Israel.

A curse need not be merely an unkind word. It might be a plot to undermine America's democratic process. The Soviet Union committed such a curse, and, as a consequence, it collapsed after seven decades. Who knocked down the Soviet empire? It was the Lord, acting to shield the New Israel and preserve the New Israel in America. Even if the state of Israel were to commit a curse against America, the shadow of the New Israel, a severe consequence must follow.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Is Saul among the prophets?

On I Samuel

There was an old saying among the Israelis: "Is Saul among the prophets?"

This is surely an ancient witticism and idiom which is invoked to indicate a person being out of character or showing a change of outlook and behavior. It might have even been used to focus on an apparent social contradiction.

However, this clever saying eventually was made literal, as when parables meant to instruct were, over generations, eventually taken to be literal dogma.

It seems quite plausible that two stories about Saul being filled with the Spirit and prophesying -- in one case against his will -- were folk tales meant for campfire entertainment that were handed down orally until eventually being written down on a scroll filled with such yarns. The stories answered the question: "How did the saying 'Is Saul among the prophets?' come about?" The saying itself however was likely originally a shrewd comment that drew on the fact that the worldly king was known to have been at odds with the prophet Samuel. Even if in fact Saul did go into an ecstasy of the Spirit at some point, that fact doesn't seem to be the real origin of the saying.

So then, what we have is that the stories are intertwined with another account of the story of Saul and David. Those returning to Jerusalem under the Persian mandate were required to draw up the religious traditions and codify them to satisfy Persian bureaucracy. It is possible that at this point stories that had circulated in Jerusalem were combined with a more serious account. (Of course there had been other redactions and compilations before the Exile.) At any rate, these stories ("pericopes"), if eliminated along with a few other interpolated pericopes, leave a very plausible account of a rising military star, David, who excited the envy of the king.

As for the story of David the shepherd boy slaying Goliath of Gath, this pericope seems asynchronous with the account of David the military leader. Curiously, at another point, not David but one of his soldiers is credited with killing the giant Goliath (whose height has been estimated at six-feet-nine). It seems likely that this fact was expanded and applied to David because David was the star the campfire crowds wanted to hear about. One can see how it would be, in the beginning, metaphorically true. David was the young commander who rescued tiny Israel from the giant Philistine power through his cunning and daring. He did kill a giant. The giant of Philistine power. Later the Goliath story was woven in.

On Exodus

Quite interesting that the tribe of Levi has many Egyptian names, a fact tending to bolster the idea that the Levites may have been the 6,000 led by Moses from Egypt. Perhaps later they became the priestly tribe -- when the exilics joined with other Hebrew tribes, who already had shares of land. The Levites, who had been border guards in the buffer zone of Goshen, fled Egypt after they were pressed into corvee service for building projects, something the Indian-like tribesmen looked upon as slavery. Having lost their land holdings in Goshen, they were accorded priestly status in an arrangement with the confederation of Hebrew tribes, which all traced their lineage to Jacob/Israel.

Aaron may represent a rival priestly tradition, perhaps one that had existed among those tribes that had not been living in Goshen. When the arrangement was made, it was decided that Aaron should be considered a brother of Moses, so that the two priestly casts could coexist. Later, folk tales about Moses and Aaron were popular entertainment around the campfires and eventually these tales were written down. On the other hand, there seems to be a strong thread of historicity running through the Exodus story. For example, it has been shown that the Egyptian plagues are the sort of natural disasters that would happen in that region, and that the plagues came in the correct order, where one event triggered the next. Even the statement that the last plague killed "the firstborn" may be a metaphorical way of saying that the plague struck down the best and the brightest, the young and the healthy. On occasion, plagues select the young and vibrant -- as in the 1918 influenza pandemic -- because that generation has not been immunized by exposure to related viruses.

I find some of Freud's speculations concerning the Exodus, as told in Moses and Monotheism, to be quite interesting. Especially when it comes to the Egyptian, Moses, insisting that the Hebrew refugees refrain from any form of representation of their god. Moses, thought Freud, was reacting to the traditional representational idolatry of Egypt and wanted a completely stripped down form of worship, where God, as Spirit -- rather than a thing representing a god -- was worshiped.

Friday, November 1, 2013

A prayer for nonsectarian groups

The following combines the Serenity Prayer with
a few verses reflective of well-known spiritual truths.

God, grant us the serenity
to accept the things we cannot change,
courage to change the things we can,
and wisdom to know the difference.

Meet our needs for this day that you
have given us, and help us to take life
one day at a time.

Forgive us our wrongs,
as we forgive those who wrong us,
and help us reflect on the many positives in life.

God, help us under your guidance be part
of the solution, and not part of the problem.

Revamped Nov. 3, 2013.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

How strong is God?

Concerning Goedel's ontological proof of the existence of God

Agreed. Positive and negative appears to depend upon the observer. For example, the world's suffering isn't so negative if the fear of death is answered, which it is by the gospel message.

I'm wondering whether the proposition that inherent contradiction bars existence of omnipotence could be one of those Goedelian statements that is true but undecidable within some sufficiently rich formalism, which must then be incomplete.