Category Archives: History

Impressions of “Wrestling the Angel — the Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity,” by Terryl L Givens

Before I read Wrestling the Angel by Terryl L. Givens I was confused. I could not make sense of what I heard of Mormonism. I knew a few concepts, such as spirit baptism, a theology that was a hybrid of polytheism and atheism, and an ecclesiastic hierarchy that seemed like an imitation of Rome. But I could not place it within the broader Christian tradition, nor identify even a point of divergence of Mormon thought from another Christian branch.

I expressed my ignorance to my friend Tanner Greer, who recommended that I read this book. I am glad he did so. Wrestling the Angel is a terrific book, generally sympathetic to Mormonism and by an author apparently most comfortable with Calvinist terminology. Like Medieval Christianity: A New History, which provided a context for 1,000 years of Catholic thinking, Wrestling the Angel situations Mormonism without the intellectual currents of American Protestantism (and especially American Calvinism) in the 19th century. The literary context of Mormonism (such as the View of the Hebrews or the literary significance of the King James Version) are completely ignored.

But my most valuable take away was this: cosmologically, Mormonism operates as an extremely old branch of Christianity. Much of the Mormon thought would be much more familiar to the audience of Peter’s Didache than, say, the Confessions of Augustine or the Homilies of Chrysostom. The “Weirdest” parts of Mormon thought are straight forward given the Hebraic outlook of the religion. This is most clear in the Mormon conceptions of creation, God’s literal fatherhood of mankind, theosis, and the nature of heaven. That said, it’s questionable how seriously the Mormon assertion that there is no philosophy or theology of Mormonism can be taken, given it exists within a western context. Mormonism is more Hebraic than even Judaism, because Judaism coherently responded to western philosophy in the 13th century. It is too early to tell how Mormonism will respond to philosophical thought.

Creation

All other branches of Christianity assert that God created that universe from nothing. Mormonism denies this, asserting instead that God organized the universe from chaos. A consequence of Mormon denial of creation from nothing is that the Mormon “God” is not even a “God” – he is just a supernatural alien that has better control of technology that than we do.

As a creature, the Mormon “God” is bound by the laws of the universe, and can be forced to do the will of any other creature who understands the laws. Just as Assyrians celebrated making their gods indebted to them, Mormons know that God has no freedom but to act in the way their own holiness dictates

Marduk, the king of gods, is reconciled with the king my lord. He does whatever the king my lord says. Sitting on your throne, you will vanquish your enemies, conquer your foes, and plunder the enemy

Yet the Mormon focus on organization is closer to the meaning of the Hebrew Bible. The very first chapter of Genesis probably is a discussion of the universe’s organization. Likewise, the Book of Joshua tells of Canaan’s organization.  Western Christians may respond that for the God of Israel to the God of Philosophy, he would have had have created the universe from nothing as well as organized the universe from chaos. This may be the case. But it makes God contingent on the western laws of logic, instead of the Canaanite laws of order.

God’s Literal Fatherhood of Man

Given its continuity with the Canaanite worldview of the Hebrew Bible, Mormons believe that God is our literal father.  This is to say, God the Father is a man.

Abraham might not have been surprised by this. God after all ate and drank with him. But also John the Evangelist would not have been surprised. Christ sweats blood, thirsts, eats and drinks — fully like man

Jesus wept.
John 11:35

but also was in the beginning — fully like God

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.
John 1:1-3

These elements were also present in the stories from ancient Canaan. God’s daughter threatens to cut him open and make him bleed by a lamb. God hosts a drinking party and has a hang-over. He cries tears when Death takes Ba’al, and his male genitalia is as long as the Euphrates.

Indeed, as most Christians follow the Athanasian Creed which asserts all persons of the Trinity share attributes with all others, the extent to which God the Father fully participates in God the Son’s incarnation is interesting. But in any case God’s literal fatherhood of man is most surprising to those who hold a stronger form of spirit-body dualism than any writer of the Scriptures apparently held.

Angels, Heaven, and Hell

Mormonism teaches that humans can become angels. While this is foreign to Christian angelology, it’s not ridiculous. The 2nd Book of Enoch, written during the Second Temple period, describes Enoch fulfilling the role of an Angel. And indeed “angel” means “Messenger,” thus Mormon references to angel’s can be replaced by the ghosts of souls in heaven given tasks by God.

Likewise, Mormonism seems to use Protestant terms but Catholic conceptions of the afterlife. In Catholic terms, virtually all souls spend an extended period of time in purgatory. For those with worse sins it begins as a more painful process, but those with better works it is very pleasant, but in these cases it serves to cleanse and perfect the souls of the dead. Mormonism do have the idea of choices being made in this state that can effect the future, but on the same hand so did the allegory of the afterlife presented by C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce. I’m perfectly happy to see any conflict here as a result of the impoverished way we think of and talk about time.

Yet this view of purgatory — as a place decisions can be made — also helps explain another issue that troubles Christians: the baptism of the dead. The actual acceptance of baptism occurs by the spirit in purgatory (perhaps translated into Catholic terminology as the soul having received grace and the baptism by desire in life). But because Mormonism emerged from mid-19th century Protestantism that recognized only baptism by water, a proxy baptism by water is allowed that, when combined with the spirit’s acceptance of Christ, becomes a canonical baptism.

Theosis and Transcendence

One of the differences between western and eastern Christianity is a difference in focus on how to be faithful. Catholics and Orthodox agree that being faithful to Christ requires imitating him, but Catholics are more likely to emphasize immediate fulfillment of specific commands (feed the hungry, visit the sick, and so on) while Orthodox are more likely to emphasize the use of prayer and meditation to obtain a divine orientation. Mormonism is within these traditions, focusing on a rule-based ladder to spiritual betterment (made possible by grace), combined with a future goal of full participation in the divine.

This becomes problematic to other Christians when the Mormon rejection of divinity as anything other than very well ordered humanity is taken into accounts. Some people say Mormons are Arians but I don’t see how this can be true — it is not that Mormons believe that Jesus was substantially difference from the Father, but it that they do not believe the Father was substantively different from a cat. There is simply some energy state referred to as “organization” that beings we call divine (God, gods, etc) have more of and others have less of. Perhaps it can be scientifically measured one day.

This introduces a crisis in Mormon thought that Wrestling the Angel never addresses: this idea (a hidden quantity of Organization which determines observed divinity) is completely foreign to the Old Testament foundations that so much of Mormon thought is based on. It’s not a Hebrew idea, it’s not a New Testament idea. Even the Canaanite worshipers of Ba’al rejected it:

Indeed, our creator is eternal
Indeed ageless is He who formed us
The Ba’al Cycle

It is basically a western, Greek, philosophical idea of abstract concepts and hidden quantifiable attributes. The Mormon claim of not being philosophical or theological, of not having Creeds or dogma, fall apart here. Perhaps there is some resolution, but if so Terry Givens does not give a hint of one.

Judaism, Philosophy, and The Open Canon

The crisis around theosis in particular echoes the Judaeo-Christian crisis of the 13th century. The spread of philosophy in Western Europe made both Jews and Christians uncomfortable with an arbitrary or imprisoned God. Catholicism faced this through a new focus on lived imitation of Christ and the Christianization of philosophy (as with St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thomas Aquinas). Judaism suffered a deeper rupture, in the forms of the Nachmanides’s mysical intepretation of the Torah and Maimonides Judaization of philosophys, but even the mystical school adopted the forms and competencies of rational discussion.

The Mormon bias against philosophy and theology may delay this reckoning, but it seems unlikely to stop. The empirical evidence seems that philosophical incoherence is not sustainable over the long term — no other branch of the Abrahamic face that I am aware of has maintained this. And Mormonism has a mechanism to allow to it adapt to the culture it exists in: the open canon.

Like the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Mormonism has no mechanism for identifying when Scripture starts and church teachings begin. Some books, like the Mormon King James Version and the Mormon Doctrine and Covenants, change over time. Other well known Mormon works, such as the King Follett discourse, are not part of the canon at all. A similar mechanism, the Holy Tradition, fulfills a similar role in Catholicism or Orthodoxy. The faith in those churches have unfolded over great expanses of time. Mormonism will as well.

Final Thoughts

I began Wrestling the Angel knowing little about Mormon theology or cosmology. I feel I have a grasp of it now, and I thank Tanner for the excellent recommendation.

I read Wrestling the Angel in the Audible edition.

Impressions of “The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest: Covenant, Retribution, and the Fate of the Canaanites,” by John H. Walton and J. Harvey Walton

The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest is an examination of the Israelite conquest of Canaan as described primarily in the Book of Joshua. John H. and J. Harvey Walton argue the war was fought to properly order Canaan under God’s sovereign rule, and not as punishment for the Canaanites. The term herem, normally translated as “place under the ban” or “utterly destroy,” should be translated as “remove from human use” or even “purify.”  The process of establishing sovereignty in an area — called “Making a Name” or “Placing a Name,” — is completed by God through the Temple (though Saul, the builders of the Tower of Babel, and many other kings  previously tried to make a name for themselves, as recorded both within and outside the Bible). The authors introduce the idea of The Ban as a type, or foreshadowing, of Living in Christ, but do not convincingly argue this. Likewise, the propose an explanation for the apparent presence of inhuman monsters in Canaan. during the Conquest

Seven Days that Shook the World

And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.

This is the history of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, before any plant of the field was in the earth and before any herb of the field had grown. For the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the earth, and there was no man to till the ground; 6 but a mist went up from the earth and watered the whole face of the ground.

And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.
Genesis 2:2-7

The Book of Joshua is a war story, the third book the ExodusNumbersJoshua narrative that chronicles the life of the savior of Israel, Joshua, who follows (and then apparently deposes) Moses and leads an army against the Canaanite cities. Men, families, and entire cities are placed “under the ban” and “doomed to destruction” (herem). It is as exciting as a tale of the rise of ISIS told from the perspective of a military commander would be. Angels, stars, prostitutes, and spies are all characters in a book that makes church ladies uncomfortable all over the world.

But it came to pass on the seventh day that they rose early, about the dawning of the day, and marched around the city seven times in the same manner. On that day only they marched around the city seven times.
And the seventh time it happened, when the priests blew the trumpets, that Joshua said to the people:

“Shout, for the LORD has given you the city!

Now the city shall be doomed by the LORD to destruction, it and all who are in it.
Only Rahab the harlot shall live, she and all who are with her in the house, because she hid the messengers that we sent.”
Joshua 6:16-17

This pattern will be created later, when the Temple is opened in seven days. The Creation, the Conquest, and the Indwelling of the LORD in the Temple are are three stages in the proper ordering of the universe. God creates the universe, God is granted title to the land, God is invested in the Temple. A force completely outside the cosmos orders the cosmos and lives in the cosmos. Christians of course will see parallels — antitypes — in this process to the Creation by the Word, the Victory at the Cross, and the Indwelling of the Spirit at Pentecost.

At that time Solomon kept the feast seven days,
and all Israel with him, a very great assembly from the entrance of Hamath to the Brook of Egypt. And on the eighth day they held a sacred assembly,
for they observed the dedication of the altar seven days,
and the feast seven days.
On the twenty-third day of the seventh month he sent the people away to their tents, joyful and glad of heart for the good that the Lord had done for David, for Solomon, and for His people Israel.
2 Chronicles 7:8-10

Under the Ban

The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest could have been written as an extended examination of two verses:

So all the cities of those kings, and all their kings, Joshua took and struck with the edge of the sword. He utterly destroyed them, as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded. But as for the cities that stood on their mounds, Israel burned none of them, except Hazor only, which Joshua burned.
Joshua 11:12-13

and

For the land is defiled; therefore I visit the punishment of its iniquity upon it, and the land vomits out its inhabitants.
Leviticus 18:25

Examining the three words in bold, the authors argue

  • utterly destroy, or herem, means remove from human (as opposed to Divine) use
  • defiled, or tm’, means ritually unclean or unfit for use, as in Judges 13:4
  • punishment, or pqd, means determine the density, and
  • iniquity, or ‘awon, means purify as with fire, as in Numbers 31:23
  • vomit is accepted as such, but can proceed the proper use of a thing, such as the whale’s vomiting of Jonah

The authors argue that Joshua “utterly destroyed” the kings by killing them,t the city of Hazor by burning it to the ground, and the other cities by transferring their sovereignty from the Israelite army (which had it by right of conquest) to God. The authors also argue that that Leviticus 18:25 really should read

For the land is unfit for use; therefore I will determine the density of its cleansing on it, and the land vomits out its inhabitants

The proposed translations are similar to Robert Alter‘s translation of the verse in Joshua:

And all the towns of these kings and all their kings Joshua took and struck them down with the edge of the sword, he put them under the ban as Moses servant of the LORD had charged. Only all the towns standing on their mounds Israel did not burn, except for Hazor alone that Joshua burned.

as well as Leviticus:

And the land was defiled, and I made a reckoning with it for its iniquity, and the land spewed out its inhabitants

This is persuasive. The Land of Canaan is to be put through an earthly purgatory, but the goal is to make it properly ordered, not to vindicatively punish it. As Rabbi Stuart Federow argues, many Christians ignore the Biblical emphasis on proper ordering by trying to reduce all forms of disorder to sin, just as some Christians ignore the Biblical emphasis on faithfulness by trying to reduce all forms of faithlessness to doubt. The lesson here, that God desires proper ordering of things and our allegiance to Him, means giving up some of pop Christianity.

Make a Name

The Israelite Idea of “Covenant” emphasized that Israel already surrendered to God, and was under an occupation regime similar to Japan’s experience after World War II. God, not Israel, was sovereign. Not just certain cities, but the entire nation, was under the General Orders (or “Laws”) of the Sovereign God-King.

This pattern (to a smaller extent) already existed in the Near East. The Babylonians, for instance, would grant specific cities or fields to their Gods similar to how modern companies will grant sovereign rights to consular compounds:

As long as heaven and earth and mankind will be, in future no son of man may inhabit [this land. I have offered] it to Tesub my lord, together with fields, farmyards, vineyards… [Let] your bulls Seri and Hurri [make it] their own grazing land

Yet because the other Near Eastern peoples treated Gods as a very powerful external partner, but not their ultimate Sovereign, they could congratulate themselves on entering into alliances with gods who were then bound by law to defend them. As one Assyrian memorial records:

Marduk, the king of gods, is reconciled with the king my lord. He does whatever the king my lord says. SItting on your throne, you will vanquish your enemies, conquer your foes, and plunder the enemy

Thus, what is happening in Joshua is that the Israelites are conquering a country and then transferring the title to The LORD in keeping with the Instrument of Surrender (“Covenant”) negotiated by Moses. By removing Canaan from Israelite use — making it herem — it is God, not Israel, that places his name in the Holy Land as recorded in the Chronicles

Yet I have chosen Jerusalem, that My name may be there, and I have chosen David to be over My people Israel.
2 Chronicles 6:6

This contrasts with King Saul’s attempt in The Book of Samuel to indicate that he, and not God, is sovereign

So when Samuel rose early in the morning to meet Saul, it was told Samuel, saying,
“Saul went to Carmel, and indeed, he set up a monument for himself; and he has gone on around, passed by, and gone down to Gilgal.”
Then Samuel went to Saul, and Saul said to him, “Blessed are you of the LORD! I have performed the commandment of the LORD.”
But Samuel said, “”hat then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?”
1 Samuel 15:12-14

As well as against the Babylonian’s attempt to do likewise with their Tower

And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.”
Genesis 11:4

Living in Christ

If the theme is the rule of God — His creation of the universe, His sovereignty over Canaan, His indwelling at Zion — what does the King of the Universe want from us? Simple this: the full use of us.

The Waltons connect Herem from the Hebrew Bible with the Christian idea of being in Christ, or putting off the “old man” in the Letter to the Ephesians

But you have not so learned Christ, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught by Him, as the truth is in Jesus: that you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness.
Ephesians 4:20-24

The old man is “put off” (or “crucified” in Romans 6:6), not as a punishment, but as a necessary preparation for something greater. As the Waltons write:

We don’t destroy our former selves because they committed crimes and deserve to be destroyed; we destroy them because they are in the way of God using us for his purposes.

The logic of this is that just as God placed Canaan as herem or “under the ban,” God also placed us under the ban as well

Herem of identity in the new covenant means removing from use all identities (which recapitulate the Canaanite nations) other than Christian from the self (which recapitulates the land)

This is fascinating, but not as convincing. For one, the Septuagint Bible used by Bible translates Herem as Anathema, a term he never uses for living in Christ. Further, the Waltons extend the claim to viewing our individual identities not as things for God to use, but as things for us to reject. This seems to lead to a reductio ad absurdum of placing one’s identity as male or female under the ban, but the Waltons seem to accept this

On the other hand, and privilege or status that accompanies the identity markers is not to be asserted. Paul has the identity of apostle, but he repeatedly refuses to assert the rights that accompany that identity.

The obvious scriptural counter-argument to this is never addressed:

He created them male and female, and blessed them and called them Mankind in the day they were created.
Genesis 5:2

Inhuman Monsters

A second interesting idea is explaining the otherwise inexplicable inclusion of Rephaism and Nephalim in the Joshua accounts. Rephaim appear to be the ghosts of dead kings (as in the Canaanite Story of Danel), while Nephalim would be the gigantic offspring of half-angelic / half-human hybrids. The Waltons argue that this is part of the trope of invincible barbarians called “umman manda” who are described with inhuman features.

There hands are destructive and their features are those of monkeys; he is one who eats what [a goddess] forbids and does not show reverence. They never stop roaming about…
they are an abomination to the gods’ dwellings. Their ideas are confused; they cause only disturbance.

I was fascinated by this. The apparent presence of these supernatural creatures in both Genesis and Exodus is striking, and whether these are thinking creatures or Augustinian symbols, the Divine Author meant something by them. But the Waltons’ interpretation does not square with the description in Numbers and Joshua as the Canaanites as having strong, established cities. The Waltons’ later claim that Gog represents another form of barbarians, instead of something more bizarre or post-modern, is also questionable.

And as before, the obvious Scriptural complication to a purely human view of inhuman monsters is not mentioned

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.
Ephesians 6:12

Final Thoughts

I have trouble recommending The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest because of the way it is embarrassed by the Scriptures, and bows too much to church ladies all over the world. Likewise it is not as persuasive a discussion of a concept as was Salvation by Allegiance Alone or even The Lost World of Genesis One. But it gave me a new way to understand herem, and tied it both to later discussions of King Saul and the Apostle Paul, as well as older Near Eastern myths and documents.

I read The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest in the Kindle edition.

The Book of Samuel

Note: It took around three years for me to read the Bible, beginning with Robert Alter’s translation of The Five Books of Moses. At first the material — the text, the stories, the real thing the never teach you — was so new I was mostly reacted in stunned silence. My first blog post on the Bible was The Book of Kings in December 2014. In March 2017, I published my last reflections on The Wisdom of Solomon and the Book of Sirach, and the The Prayer of Manasseh that formerly separated the Old and New Testaments.

The turning point for me was the Book of Samuel. I don’t know the words to say the importance of this book to me. The reason the Scripture contains different genres of books is to reach different genres of hearts — Samuel reached mine! Samuel was the first time my short facebook notes on my Biblical reading expanded into something more. Indeed, I wrote four different posts on the Book.

So, in order to combine my thoughts, I present those four takes here, a sort of redacted post from earlier documents. I’ve kept later editing to a minimum… only what was needed.

1 Samuel and 2 Samuel

The Book of Samuel is hard reading. Not hard to read — Atler’s translation is wonderful. But hard in its implications. The spiraling damage — to Saul himself, to the lives of his ‘enemies’ and even the moral character of David — only gets worse. But Saul did not seek the Kingship — his request to Samuel was only for the location of some lost donkeys, and he physically hid from his own coronation.

 

As Samuel makes his grand statement he believes he has discovered a great rhyme in history: LORD, Tomb, Donkeys, Father, Son. Israel is a stubborn people, perhaps the tribes are donkeys. But perhaps something else is being described

Then Samuel took a flask of oil and poured it on his head, and kissed him and said:
“Is it not because the Lord has anointed you commander over His inheritance?
When you have departed from me today, you will find two men by Rachel’s tomb in the territory of Benjamin at Zelzah; and they will say to you,
‘The donkeys which you went to look for have been found.
And now your father has ceased caring about the donkeys and is worrying about you, saying, “What shall I do about my son?”’
1 Samuel 10:1-3

It very much feels like someone had the idea to make the young woman from Roman Polanski’s Repulsion as monarch. Indeed, the horror of the paired “Is Saul, too, among the Prophets?” episodes — the first time Sunday-schooly and humorous,

Then the Spirit of the Lord will come upon you, and you will prophesy with them and be turned into another man. And let it be, when these signs come to you, that you do as the occasion demands; for God is with you. You shall go down before me to Gilgal; and surely I will come down to you to offer burnt offerings and make sacrifices of peace offerings. Seven days you shall wait, till I come to you and show you what you should do.”

So it was, when he had turned his back to go from Samuel, that God gave him another heart; and all those signs came to pass that day. When they came there to the hill, there was a group of prophets to meet him; then the Spirit of God came upon him, and he prophesied among them. And it happened, when all who knew him formerly saw that he indeed prophesied among the prophets, that the people said to one another, “What is this that has come upon the son of Kish? Is Saul also among the prophets?
1 Samuel 10:6-11

The second time is sad and terrifying — is the horror of “Repulsion”: Saul’s suffered from psychosis the entire time he’s been in the story.

So [Saul] went there to Naioth in Ramah. Then the Spirit of God was upon him also, and he went on and prophesied until he came to Naioth in Ramah.
And he also stripped off his clothes and prophesied before Samuel in like manner, and lay down naked all that day and all that night.
Therefore they say, “Is Saul also among the prophets?
1 Samuel 19:24

I have a ways to go before the Book of Job, but that seems like small potatoes compared of the Book of Samuel.

If the Book of Numbers was war as an adventure, and The Book of Judges was war as a Western, the Book of Samuel is war as a tragedy. A few mistakes by a few people build and build, leading to a complete moral collapse that our heroes are drowning in.

Shakespeare’s got nothing on this.

Including the Beginning of 1 Kings

There’s a director’s cut!

The Book of Samuel, which mostly felt like a cross between House of Cards and Game of Thrones, ends in the dark. King David is an aging prisoner of Generalissimo Joab, who climbed the ladder of power and murdered the General of the Army of Israel, the General of the Army of Judah, and the pretender King Absalom (David’s son).

But Joab has another fate.

The last four chapters 2 Samuel are like the sepia-toned conclusion of The Godfather: four scenes that lose the psychological realism of the main work, and instead twist the knife. These stories are kind of fairy tales — they don’t have the bitter realism of most of the Book of Samuel, but they feel… wrong. Like the that sepia-toned ending of the Godfather, which ends with Michael all alone, the wrongness of the story is just below the service.

There’s a story of David condemning the sons of Saul, and regretting it. As he pardoned Joab, the murderer of Saul’s general, and surely regretted it.

There’s a poem from David’s youth, celebrating the Lord of Armies and how God granted him military victory. But from old age, surely King David knew who commanded the military — Joab.

There’s David’s last poem, praising the importance of a King and saying that “worthless men” must be dragged out. But Joab was originally of David’s “worthless men,” a man with nothing to lose who would follow him.

There’s a story of David conducting a census, against the recommendation of Joab, and regretting it. Because like Michael Corleone, like Frank Underwood, Joab, was many things, but never stupid.

So the Book of Samuel ends, David a prisoner, Joab the Generalissimo, and the reader’s head spins.

Although my house is not so with God,
Yet He has made with me an everlasting covenant,
Ordered in all things and secure.
For this is all my salvation and all my desire;
Will He not make it increase?
2 Kings 23:5

But there’s a director’s cut.

That’s not the original ending.

The Book of Kings, which immediately follows, is a compilation of 400 years of dynastic history. Like any such history, the writing style swings dramatically, because it is a compilation of chronicles, of wiki updates over the centuries.

And the first two chapters are the conclusion of Samuel. The same psychological realism. The same sadness. But a real ending.

David isn’t Michael Corleone. He’s Vito.

In his dying words, David praises God and theen asks Solomon to get him his revenge, to kill Joab so he cannot die peacefully. And Robert Alter said, David’s faith is so complete it borders on the subversive

Now the days of David drew near that he should die, and he charged Solomon his son, saying: “I go the way of all the earth; be strong, therefore, and prove yourself a man.
And keep the charge of the Lord your God:
to walk in His ways,
to keep His statutes,
His commandments,
His judgments,
and His testimonies, as it is written in the Law of Moses, that you may prosper in all that you do and wherever you turn;
that the Lord may fulfill His word which He spoke concerning me, saying, ‘If your sons take heed to their way, to walk before Me in truth with all their heart and with all their soul,’ He said, ‘you shall not lack a man on the throne of Israel.’

“Moreover you know also what Joab the son of Zeruiah did to me,
and what he did to the two commanders of the armies of Israel,
to Abner the son of Ner
and Amasa the son of Jether, whom he killed.
And he shed the blood of war in peacetime,
and put the blood of war on his belt that was around his waist,
and on his sandals that were on his feet.
Therefore do according to your wisdom, and do not let his gray hair go down to the grave in peace.
1 Kings 2:1-6

One by one, Solomon isolates Joab, using the law to his ends, finding judicial reasons to kill one supporter after another. Until Joab, old and feeble and no longer able to fight, flees to the Arc of the Covenant and holds on, crying for safety.

Who could kill someone in the House of the Lord? Who could deny sanctuary to a fugitive in the Tent of Meeting?

But unlike David (whose grasp of the Law of Moses was sentimentally and shaky), Solomon remembered the Law

But if anyone schemes and kills someone deliberately, that person is to be taken from my altar and put to death.
Exodus 21:14

Well, mostly,

So Benaiah went to the tabernacle of the Lord, and said to him, “Thus says the king, ‘Come out!’”

And he said, “No, but I will die here.” And Benaiah brought back word to the king, saying, “Thus said Joab, and thus he answered me.”

Then the king said to him, “Do as he has said, and strike him down and bury him, that you may take away from me and from the house of my father the innocent blood which Joab shed.
1 Kings 2:30-31

The Witch of Endor

I vaguely remembered “The Witch of Endor,” the woman who summoned the Prophet Samuel to King Saul. The story includes with some comic relief — the witch screams and flees, not having expected her spell to actually work.

Then the woman said, “Whom shall I bring up for you?”
And he said, “Bring up Samuel for me.”
When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice.
And the woman spoke to Saul, saying, “Why have you deceived me? For you are Saul!”
1 Samuel 28:11-12

Saul has been beaten into frailty by the evil spirit, his psychosis. Samuel — the the prophet, seer & priest – berates him for being a horrible king, tells him that Saul and his sons will die tomorrow, and leaves.

Then Samuel said: “So why do you ask me, seeing the LORD has departed from you and has become your enemy?
And the LORD has done for Himself as He spoke by me.
For the LORD has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor, David. Because you did not obey the voice of the LORD nor execute His fierce wrath upon Amalek, therefore the LORD has done this thing to you this day.
Moreover the LORD will also deliver Israel with you into the hand of the Philistines.
And tomorrow you and your sons will be with me.
The LORD will also deliver the army of Israel into the hand of the Philistines.
1 Samuel 28:16-19

The witch, after the episode, slaughters a calf, giving Saul some food to eat and a place to sleep on the last night of his life.

Now therefore, please, heed also the voice of your maidservant, and let me set a piece of bread before you; and eat, that you may have strength when you go on your way.”
But he refused and said, “I will not eat.”
So his servants, together with the woman, urged him; and he heeded their voice.
Then he arose from the ground and sat on the bed.
Now the woman had a fatted calf in the house, and she hastened to kill it.
And she took flour and kneaded it, and baked unleavened bread from it.
So she brought it before Saul and his servants, and they ate.
Then they rose and went away that night.
1 Samuel 28:22-25

Before starting Alter’s translation of the Old Testament, I had only read Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan as a gentile. But they are even more meaningful in light of Jewish traditions. Who is the priest? Who is the good Samaritan?

Final Thoughts

Years after finishing it, I have never read anything like the Book of Samuel. I thought about this or that part of it daily for more than a year. The two ‘cuts’ of it in the Hebrew Bible (one ending at 2 Samuel 24, the other continuing through 1 Kings 2) are like a great theatrical cut and great directors cut: both brilliant but in different ways.

Reading Samuel under Alter’s translation has impacted my other readings. The Art of Biblical Narrative helped shape my view of how to understand the parts of the Bible I read on my own, while Saul, Doeg, Nabal, and the Son of Jesse helped me focus on “minor” characters in the text. I don’t think its possible to understand the Transfiguration without the context of the nightmare Israel experienced trying to reconcile the Kings and the Prophets.

I read the Book of Samuel in Robert Alter’s translation and commentary, Ancient Israel: The Former Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, in the Kindle edition.

Impressions of “St Francis of Assisi” and “St Thomas Aquinas,” by G.K. Chesterton

Before last month, I was almost completely ignorant of the Coming of the Friars. After reading about it, I read two more books on the subjects.

The coming of the Friars is the term used in Kevin Madigan’s Medieval Christianity: A New History. It refers to the Catholic revolution in religious life against what had been left of the Monks and the Priests in the Dark Ages. Priests re-presented the Sacrifice of the Lord, monks said prayers and copied books, and there were some monks who were also priests. These were lawful and legitimate, but what was left off was the people, and, sometimes, reverence. Normal people of could would not hear the masses said in monasteries, and in the parishes priests often did not bother with homilies. Often this extended to both monks and priests either being illicitly married or at least openly keeping mistresses. Both positions became, to some extent, heritable.

Ironically, G.K. Chesterton sees one cause of this problem as an otherworldly philosophy adopted by many in the church, and based on the writings of St. Augustine. Augustine’s Confessions was so vivid as to his personality this seems odd, but I’m aware of his Neo-Platonist sympathies. Anyway, near the end of Confessions is what I had taken for a garbled pre-psychological attempt to understand the cognitive process Chesterton makes a tremendous deal out of this, and sees it as evidence of a focus on the ideal (what Lewis would call the “hygienic”) over the Creation that God called “good.”

Francis and Thomas were very different men, Chesterton says they are as unique as saints. Chesterton always describes Francis as leaping or in a hurry, and Thomas as plodding — the “dumb ox” his old school nickname. Something of the difference between these two saints can be seen in excerpts from their writings. Both are certainly Christian writings, and indeed they were both revolutionary affirmations of the actual created world ( in contrast to an excessive, disembodied spirtuality), but who could confuse Francis:

Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon
and the stars, in heaven you formed them
clear and precious and beautiful.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene,
and every kind of weather through which
You give sustenance to Your creatures.
The Canticle of the Sun

for Thomas:

Article 1. Whether Christ should have been circumcised?

Objection 1. It would seem that Christ should not have been circumcised. For on the advent of the reality, the figure ceases. But circumcision was prescribed to Abraham as a sign of the covenant concerning his posterity, as may be seen from Genesis 17. Now this covenant was fulfilled in Christ’s birth. Therefore circumcision should have ceased at once.

Objection 2. Further, “every action of Christ is a lesson to us” [Innoc. III, Serm. xxii de Temp.; wherefore it is written (John 3:15): “I have given you an example, that as I have done to you, so you do also.” But we ought not to be circumcised; according to Galatians 5:2: “If you be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing.” Therefore it seems that neither should Christ have been circumcised.

Objection 3. Further, circumcision was prescribed as a remedy of original sin. But Christ did not contract original sin, as stated above (III:14:3; III:15:1). Therefore Christ should not have been circumcised.

On the contrary, It is written (Luke 2:21): “After eight days were accomplished, that the child should be circumcised.”

[etc]
Summa Theologiae, III:37

Their individuality extends to the least-probable events in their respect lives. Thomas was the cousin of a Holy Roman Emperor, who when he announced his desire to be an abbot, his well-off family effectively bought him a monastery and installed him as abbot. When he became a friar and was on his first mission his brothers, so outraged at the idea of a non-corrupt monk, they kidnapped him and paid to have a harlot seduce him! Leading to perhaps the worst performance evaluation of all time, as the young saint chased the young woman out of his room with a fire poker!

Francis’s actions were on a larger scale, though perhaps to less effect. During the military campaign of the Fifth Crusade (1213-1221) Sultan traveled to Crusader-occupied Egypt, crossed enemy lines, requested and received an audience from the Sultan, and tried (though failed) to convert him to Christianity. The Fifth Crusade was odd for a number of reasons, such as including the (Muslim!) Sultanate of Rum among the Crusader-alliance, but perhaps an analogy would have been a Taoist monk from China travelling to Tokyo during World War II and personally attempting to convert the Emperor from Shintoism — and surviving.

It’s odd both, near the end of their life, had a vivid and disturbing vision. Francis saw a vision of a crucified Seraph — my immediate reaction, and apparently Chesterton’s, was surprise that an Angel could be crucified. (That is, presuming the God-who-became-Man is not also a God-who-became-Angel… the Angel of the LORD. And while Francis’s version is most disturbing only in the context of angelology, Thomas (who knew angelology forwards and backwards) never shared what caused him to remark:

all that I have written seems like straw to me”

It’s somewhat distrubing that both episodes can be specifically dated. Francis saw a six-winged angel on a cross on September 12, 1224. Whatever Thomas saw, he saw on December 6, 1273.

It’s striking how many reformers lived in this period. Francis (1181-1226) and Thomas (1225-1274) were, barely, contemporaries. The Pope who Francis begged to recognize his order, Pope Innocent III (1198-126), who transformed the Papacy into a weak plaything of stronger powers and brought two empires to heel, was too. Saint Dominic (1170-1221), who founded the Dominicans and who was vital in the Albigensian Crusade, met Francis before Francis traveled to the Arab world to attempt to personally convert the Sultan. Later all of these men would lead to a degeneration in another age of reform. But the reform of these men was continuous, it did not break Christian unity, even under the dangerous shoals of human corruption and weakness.

These two volumes are probably the best works by G.K. Chesterton I have read. They are far better than Heretics (1905) and Orthodoxy (1908). The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) was very good, but it is a short spy thriller/satire — a very different genre. The closest book in terms of subject and quality is his reflection on the importance of Jesus Christ — The Everlasting Man (1925) — but Chesterton does a better job explaining the historical significance of Saint Francis (1923) and Saint Thomas (1933) than he does of the Lord.

I read both St. Francis of Assisi and St Thomas Aquinas in the audible editions.

Impressions of “The Dragons of Tiananmen: Beijing as a Sacred City,” by Jeffrey F. Meyer

The Dragons of Tiananmen was the most meaningful and emotional book in the last year. I can’t guarantee anyone else will have the experience. My visits to Beijing, including one where I attempted to visit all the Imperial Altars (not all are open to the public), and my recent attempt to understand the Hebrew Bible and the Gospel, play a role here.

In short, The Dragons of Tiananman describe the life of the now-dead Chinese Imperial Religion, how the Emperors created Beijing as a Sacred City, and how the Lord of Heaven and his creatures were worshiped there.

The organization of the book is straight forward. Meyer first describes Holy Cities (cities which are religiously important because of historical events that happened in them) and Sacred Cites (those which are religiously important because they are designed to reflect heaven). He then outlines the Chinese Imperial Religion, centered on the Most-High (??), the Lord of Heaven(??). The Chinese word for Emperor (?) itself derives from characters meaning “Pole,” which is fitting because God was associated with the Pole Star, around whom all other stars revolved. In later days some Christians would find this idolatrous — future Chinese President Sun Yat-Sen famously smashed an idol of the Pole Star in his youth. Other Christians theorized a partial discovery or revelation to the Chinese in ancient days, as attested by Matteo Ricci’s The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven (AD 1603) and C.H. Kang’s The Discovery of Genesis (AD 1979).

As I read The Dragons of Tiananmen I thought back to the Chronicles, that sad record of the degeneration of the Temple in the Kingdom of Israel. There are parallels, both in how the capital (whether Jerusalem or Beijing) became a “sacred city,” in the nature and style of the sacrifices, and even in some ritualistic debates. But Temple Judaism was saved through the Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the like) and their insistence that the law be written in the heart. The Imperial Religion was not written in the heart — at least, not in the end. Just as other gods than the LORD were worshiped in Jerusalem, other Gods than the Lord of Heaven were worshiped by Emperors. There were Buddhist Emperors and Taoist Emperors, and mayn more indifferent Emperors. When the Babylonians dragged the Jews into exile, the religion of the LORD survived in spite of the corruption of the temple in Jerusalem. When the revolutionaries dragged down the Great Qing, no one was left to mourn the end of the sacrifice.

Both Jerusalem and Beijing were “sacred cities,” in the sense the were intended to be house of a Temple and the site of an Altar. The primary worship site in Jerusalem was the Temple built by Solomon. The primary worship site was the Altar of Heaven, built by the Yongle Emperor. Both religions held that God was surrounded and assisted by a heavenly communion, comprised of both a military Host of Heaven as well as a civilian counterpart. While Judaism in general rejected worship of the Host of Heaven, the repeated condemnations of this practice in the Scriptures imply the Host was still often worshiped. The Chinese Imperial religion, by contrast, formalized the worship of lessor spirits, through such subsidiary alters as the Alter of the Moon and the Alter of the Goddess of Silkworms.

Both Temple Judaism and Chinese Imperial religion faced the same dilemma: should God be worshipped in doors? God himself presents both sides of the argument in the Hebrew bible, rejecting the House built of cedar

Now it came to pass when the king was dwelling in his house, and the LORD had given him rest from all his enemies all around, that the king said to Nathan the prophet, “See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells inside tent curtains.”

Then Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that is in your heart, for the Lord is with you.”

But it happened that night that the word of the LORD came to Nathan, saying, “Go and tell My servant David, ‘Thus says the LORD: “Would you build a house for Me to dwell in? 6 For I have not dwelt in a house since the time that I brought the children of Israel up from Egypt, even to this day, but have moved about in a tent and in a tabernacle.
2 Samuel 7:1-6

but later, walls of cedar were not so bad:

Then the word of the LORD came to Solomon, saying:  “Concerning this temple which you are building, if you walk in My statutes, execute My judgments, keep all My commandments, and walk in them, then I will perform My word with you, which I spoke to your father David. And I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will not forsake My people Israel.”

So Solomon built the temple and finished it. And he built the inside walls of the temple with cedar boards; from the floor of the temple to the ceiling he paneled the inside with wood; and he covered the floor of the temple with planks of cypress.
1 Kings 6:11-15

; likewise the Chinese held both that “when one sacrifices on an open altar, it is considered the worship of heaven, while sacrifice under a roof is considered the worship of imperial ancestors,” while later holding than an “outdoor” Altar could nonetheless be surrounded by building. To this day the Altar of Prayers for Good Harvest is made of Oregon fir. The Christian religion also finds a middle ground here, for while the Sacrifice on Cavalry was of course out-side, its re-presentation (and even pre-presentation) in Lord’s Supper is of course indoors

But being celestial and purely “priestly,” the Chinese Imperial Religion did not have a moral core. The sons of the current dynasty may be elected, as surely as Saul or David or Cyrus were, but there were no Imperial prophets who called for the law to be written on the hearts, or warned that Heaven would scourge Chinese with foreigners in the way Israel was punished. Puyi, the Xuantong Emperor, may have been on worse than King Jeconiah. But the Book of Kings hopefully notes a King of Israel still lives, even if far away. Who looked to the Manchus to return?

The Chinese Imperial Religion, like Judaism, had Kings and Priests. But no prophets.

This strikes me as really important. The Gospel of Matthew is the story of what the Imperial Religion would call the “Mandate of Heaven” passing to Jesus. The relationship of the Son of Heaven and Most High is likewise a feature of the Imperial Religion. But Christianity provided other dimensions to that story, the salvation of souls and bodies, concern for the weak, and spiritual introspection. While Imperial China had similar writings, the Imperial Religion did not. And that four-fold gospel itself depended on the four-fold destruction of the Temple in books like Lamentations and Ezekiel — in the Imperial Religion the overthrow of a dynasty was always the cause of the end of the dynasty, not the stern but love care of God.

Or, as I said in my impressions of G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man:

Chesterton is a Catholic author, but his argument here is effectively secular: before Christianity there were mythologies in the sense of epic stories about the gods, and there were philosophies that provided an outline of the universe and a moral framework, but no mythic philosophy. Plato may have talked about Forms, in other words, while the priests sacrificed to Zeus, but no serious attempt was to combine these concepts. Thus, the New Testament is truly new, the “good news” really is news, because while dictatorship, democracy, art, puns, cosmology, and all the rest reach beyond history, the combinations of the roles of the Priest and the Philosopher have a definite beginning, in first century Palestine

While Judaism approaches this with The Wisdom Books and early rabinnical commentaries, it was not a religion with any Holy Cities, but only Sacred Cities. Meyer makes a distinction between a “Sacred City” intended to house an Altar for sacrifice, and a “Holy City” upon which divine figures trod. Beijing was only a Sacred City, but in Christianity it became a Holy City. Indeed, the life, death, and resurrection of Christ occurred in and around Jerusalem, just as the Imperial Religion sacrifices were made in and around Beijing. But there is even more to it than that.

The Dragons of Tiananmen helped framing my thinking about Beijing. Being both a sacred and planned city it had an architecture unity which was damaged over time. The Temple of the Moon is marked “NOW GONE” in a mark from before the Communist Revolution, and part of the old City Wall was knocked down for a railway line during the last days of the Emperor. In more recent days the widening of Changan Boulevard re-oriented the city along a definite east-west axis, while only recently have the old temples been respected at all. The Beijing that I first fell in love with was itself a Beijing in transition. Most of the hutongs I suspect are now gone. Jerusalem survived the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, and the Arabs. Will the city of the Alter of Heaven and quiet neighborhoods survive this long?

I read The Dragons of Tiananmen: Beijing as a Sacred City in the hardcover edition.

Impressions of “The Lost Book of Moses: The Quest for the World’s Oldest Bible… and the man who wrote it,” by Chanan Tigay

Recently I read The Lost Book of Moses: The Quest for the World’s Oldest Bible… and the man who wrote it by Chanan Tigay. I regret it. I boring and predictable “mystery” about a 19th century fake known to be fake at the time, The Lost Book of Moses is tied for the worst book I read this year.

The story is this: Moses Shapira was a 19th century Jewish Anglican born in the Russian Empire and mostly active around Ottoman Jerusalem. He bought, stole, and sold legitimate antiquities, and apparently helped in forging an ancient version of the Book of Deuteronomy. Specifically, he forged a version exactly what a proponent of the “Documentary Hypothesis” would suggest with the Tetragrammaton, the Name of God, absent except for the first and last verses — it was, in other words, nearly exactly the “D+” suggested in this chart.

Can one make a tale this exciting dull? Well, Tigay tries his best. A “follow the clues” narrative is created to attract Dan Brown crowd. Almost nothing about the ‘found’ version of Documentary, its differences, or the cultural context of its supposed composition are discussed. The author, an atheist, not only has a tenuous understanding of Judaism and Christianity, he does not bother to understand the places he visits, either. Weirdly, while he traveled to some locations (including Australia!) in the narrative, the most interesting locations in the middle east are entirely untouched.

Improbably, there’s one detail that I independently have knowledge of, and I was disappointed (but by that point, not surprised) to see Tigay flub it. Tigay’s travels take him to see a former librarian at Moore Theological College, the home base of William Dumbrell (whose books The End of the Beginning and Covenant and Creation I recently reviewed). Tigay is surprised that the former librarian at this Anglican school attended a Presbyterian church. What are the odds? he asked. Well, Moore has often been a hot-spot for Reformed (which more-or-less means Presbyterian) Anglicanism. So, pretty darn high.

Tigay’s task is made more difficult by his attempts to make Shapira, a deeply flawed man, heroic or even sympathetic. He stole from ancient Jewish communities, stole from his customers, stole from museums, destroyed ancient documents, and was generally a terrible person. That he destroyed his wife’s and his daughter’s lives make him more, not less, despicable. Shapira’s end — dead by his own hand after being exposed — is tragic. May God have mercy on his soul.

A last word: Chanan Tigay’s The Lost Book of Moses is as disappointing and dull as another book I read this year: Jeff Ryan’s Super Mario. Chanan Tigay lives in San Francisco. Jeff Ryan is a “games journalist.” I’ve previously written of the high cost of low wages and how its harmed popular writing. The problem may be even worse than I suspected.

I listened to The Lost Book of Moses in the Audible edition.

Impressions of “Stories from Ancient Canaan: Second Edition,” Edited and Translated by Michael Coogan and Mark Smith

I previously read The Assembly of the Gods which provided an overview of Canaanite religion. Their religious texts provide the context for much of the Holy Bible. But unlike the Hebrews, the Canaanites did not have a Canon of specific texts which were included or excluded. Instead, their tales were like episodic superhero movies, that are mostly coherent and feature overlapping characters.  You can read these for yourselves in Stories from Ancient Canaan.

Everyone knows the main characters of the “Marvel Cinematic Universe:” Ironman, Thor, and the other Avengers.  In the “Canaanite Mythological Universe” the main characters are

  • El (the Creator, the Father of Time, the Most High).  The Hebrews and the Canaanites, unlike the Greeks or Romans, believed in one supreme creator God who created the universe out of nothing and is constantly active in it. His animal form is a Bull. The name Isra-El means “El strives” or “Strived with El.”
  • Asherah – the Queen of Heaven, El’s consort.  Women would bake cares to her (Jeremiah 7:18), and King Manasseh set up a Asherah Pole to venerate her in the Temple (2 Kings 21).
  • Ba’al — Part of El’s extended family, whose quest for  a house occupies the greatest single work.  The Greeks and Romans thought he was the same being as Zeus or Jupiter. The difference is that while Zeus/Jupiter is often sown as the “father of the gods,” Ba’al is clearly the ambitious, capable son of of El.   Like El, Ba’al’s animal form is a Bull.  Gideon adopts the ironic name Jeru-Ba’al, meaning “Ba’al contends” or “Contended with Ba’al” and ironically translated as “Let Ba’al Plead,” after smashing an idol to Ba’al (Judges 6:32).
  • Anat – El’s daughter. “Women leave their fathers to cleave to their husbands” and “Women must submit to their husbands” in semetic culture, but Anat is not married.  Her father, El, is indulgent to her, and she even complains about El to his face and gets up to all sorts of mischievous.  The Greeks and Romans thought she was the same goddess as Athena or Minerva. The mysterious judge Shamgar, of whom we only know one sentence, is called “Son of Anat” (Judges 3:31).
  • Kothar-wa-Hasis – the Lord of Egypt, a craftsman who makes especially valuable objects or devices. A bow Kothar-wa-Hasis makes for a lad will become an object of envy for Anat.  Likewise, when Ba’al finally is able to build his house, Kothar-wa-Hasis is his general contractor. Kothar-wa-Hasis, literally “Skillful and Wise,” does not appear to be mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.
  • Death, Yam, Judge River, Leviathan, Dawn, Dusk, and so forth — the central tension of Canaanite myth is El’s love for all of his creatures.  Death and Judge River (also called the “Sea”) are two chaotic forces which were created by El, and which his son Ba’al must fight. These forces are kept around by God as a sort of sport or game, like powerful man may have a pet lion (Job 41:1-7),

For Bible readers, the Canaanite tales are also interesting because they were written down before the Bible. The stories presented here seem to have been set to tablets around 1200 BC, in other words halfway between the Conquest of Joshua and the Kingship of Saul. The description of Biblical events, even those that occurred before the writing down of these Canaanite stories, often assumes the listener had heard the Canaanite stories first.

The primary story from ancient Canaan is Ba’al, which in this book is ordered differently than in Assembly of the Gods. The reason is that we have multiple nearly complete copies of Ba’al, and while the main events in the tale are pretty consistent, the specific ordering changes.

There does not appear to be an overarching theology to these tales. I will take them one at a time, beginning with Ba’al, typically placing a Canaanite verse next to a Biblical verse that appears to play on it.

Ba’al

The motivation Ba’al’s adventures is to have his own house. As he complains

But Baal has no house like the other gods,
no court like Asherah’s sons:
El’s home is his son’s shelter,
Ladery Asherah of the Sea’s home

While the Bible repeatedly condemns worship of Ba’al, neither Ba’al’s existence nor his question to have his own house are denied anywhere in the text. Instead, Ba’al supernatural attempt to achieve his ends is contrasted with the path available to the believer

“Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me.  In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also. And where I go you know, and the way you know.”
John 14:1-4

In the Hebrew Bible, God’s home at Eden was finished in six days of work, and a seventh of rest

Thus the heavens and the earth, and all the host of them, were finished. And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.
Genesis 2:1-3

The construction of Ba’al’s home takes a similar amount of time

Then on the seventh day,
the fire went out in the house,
the flames in the palace:
The silver had turned into blocks,
the gold had become bricks.
Baal the Conqueror was glad:
‘I have built my house of silver,
my palace of gold!'”

Though there is a humorous wrinkle — a dispute with the general contractor! Should the house have windows, or is that an unncessary complication?

“And Kothar-wa-Hasis replied:
‘Listen Baal the Conqueror,
pay attention, Rider on the Clouds:
I should put an opening in the house,
a window in the palace.’
But Baal the Conqueror replied:
‘Don’t put an opening in the house,
a window in the palace!'”

Eventually, after the day of rest, Ba’al relents and asks for the window to be reinstalled.

And Baal the Conqueror said:
‘I will put it in, Kothar, son of Sea,
Kothar, son of the Confluence:
let a window be opened in the house,
an opening in the palace;
so let a break be opened in the clouds,
as Kothar-wa-Hasis said.’
Kothar-wa-Hasis laughed;
he raised his voice and declared:
“Baal the Conqueror, didn’t I tell you?
You’ll recall my words, Baal?
He opened a window in the house,
an opening in the palace.'”

The God of the Hebrews, however, is a more careful builder. After each day he evaluated the work, notes “it is good” (Genesis 1:3,10,12,18,21,25,31) and has no need to resume construction afterwards.

In the version of Ba’al presented here, Ba’al attempts to fight the Sea with a magical club

The club swooped from Baal’s hands,
like a vulture from his fingers.
It struck Prince Sea on the skull
Judge River between the eyes.
Sea stumbled;
he fell to the ground;
his joints shook
his frame collapsed.
Baal captured and pierced the Sea;
he finished off Judge River

But Moses needed neither a sword nor a club, nor even his own power, but only his hand

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the LORD caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea into dry land, and the waters were divided.
Exodus 14:21

As did Joshua (thus did the LORD part the Sea and the River)

So it was, when the people set out from their camp to cross over the Jordan, with the priests bearing the ark of the covenant before the people, and as those who bore the ark came to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests who bore the ark dipped in the edge of the water (for the Jordan overflows all its banks during the whole time of harvest), that the waters which came down from upstream stood still, and rose in a heap very far away at Adam, the city that is beside Zaretan. So the waters that went down into the Sea of the Arabah, the Salt Sea, failed, and were cut off; and the people crossed over opposite Jericho. Then the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood firm on dry ground in the midst of the Jordan; and all Israel crossed over on dry ground, until all the people had crossed completely over the Jordan.
Joshua 3:14-17

Two character interactions are worth noting.  Anat, El’s daughter, seems to be a high maintenance woman and has memorable scenes with both Death and El.

It’s striking how similar Death’s response to being accosted by the goddess Anat.  (As she was a single woman she was answerable only to her father — and El is remarkably tolerant of Anat…)

“What do you want, Maiden Anat?
I was taking a walk and wandering
on every mountain in the heart of the earth,
on every hill in the heart of the fields.

.. is to Satan’s description of his activities before God

Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. And the Lord said to Satan, “From where do you come?”

So Satan answered the Lord and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking back and forth on it.
Job 1:6-7

When Death takes her brother, Anat hysterically threatens El

“Maiden Anat replied:

“My father, El, the Bull, will answer me
he’ll answer me… or else,
I’ll push him to the ground
like a lamb
I’ll make his gray hair run with blood,
his gray beard with gore”

These threats were made in spite of a statement acknowledging that God is the supreme creator

She arrived at El’s encampment,
the tent of the King, the father of Time

One wonders if she made good on her promise

So then Pilate took Jesus and scourged Him. And the soldiers twisted a crown of thorns and put it on His head, and they put on Him a purple robe. Then they said, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they struck Him with their hands.
John 19:1-3

or if it was really just us

And all the people answered and said, “His blood be on us and on our children.”

Then he released Barabbas to them; and when he had scourged Jesus, he delivered Him to be crucified.
Mark 27:25-26

And if she, liked us, benefited from the salvation of the cosmos.  El was patient with Anat, may He be patient with human sinners also!

El replied from the seven rooms,
from the eight enclosures
“I know you, daughter, how furious you are,
that among goddesses there is no restraining you:
What do you want, Maidan Anat?”
And Maiden Anat replied
“Your decree is wise, El, your wisdom is eternal
a lucky life is your decree.”

El the Father treats the other gods hospitably

“Eat, please drink:
eat some food from the table,
drink some wine from the goblet
blood of the vine from the golden cup”:

as His Son treats us

When the hour had come, He sat down, and the twelve[a] apostles with Him. Then He said to them, “With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I will no longer eat of it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.”

Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”

And He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.”
Luke 22:14-19

AQHAT

Aqhat’s father Danel is specifically referenced along with Noah and Job as righteous gentiles in the Bible

“Or if I send a pestilence into that land and pour out My fury on it in blood, and cut off from it man and beast, even though Noah, Daniel, and Job were in it, as I live,” says the Lord God, “they would deliver neither son nor daughter; they would deliver only themselves by their righteousness.”
Ezekiel 14:19-20

The story of Aqath is of a Goddess’s greedy wrath against Danel’s son, Aqath. Aqath is struck down, and Danel — a righteous man who judges the orphans and the widows — prays to the God’s for his return.

Danel, the man of Rapau
the Hero, the man of the Marnamite
got up and set down at the entrance of the gate
amon the leaders on the threshing floor
He judged the cases of widows
presided over orphans’ hearings

This matches Job’s descriptions of his own work

“When I went out to the gate by the city,
When I took my seat in the open square,
The young men saw me and hid,
And the aged arose and stood;
The princes refrained from talking,
And put their hand on their mouth;
The voice of nobles was hushed,
And their tongue stuck to the roof of their mouth.
When the ear heard, then it blessed me,
And when the eye saw, then it approved me;
Because I delivered the poor who cried out,
The fatherless and the one who had no helper.
The blessing of a perishing man came upon me,
And I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy.
I put on righteousness, and it clothed me;
My justice was like a robe and a turban.
I was eyes to the blind,
And I was feet to the lame.
I was a father to the poor,
And I searched out the case that I did not know.
I broke the fangs of the wicked,
And plucked the victim from his teeth.
Job 29:7-17

Interestingly, the same story includes the Canaanite identification of the deities controlling Egypt

This provides a clue as to the importance of the LORD’s humiliation of them in Exodus

Listen, Lady Danataya
Prepare a lamb from the flock
for Kothar-wa-Hasis’s appetite,
for the desire of the Skilled Craftsman
Give food and drink to the god
serve and honor him,
the lord of Egypt, the god of it all

Both Aqhat and Job deal with the fall-out from tragedy. Job has his famous arguments with the friends who visit him, though in literary merit Job is superior. The context for Aqhat’s actions appear to be the end of mourning, as paid mourners are dismissed from their paid positions

Then, in the seventh year,
Danel, the man of Rapau, spoke:
the Hero, the man of the Harnamite,
raised his voice and declared:
“Leave my house, weepers,
leave my palace, mourners,
leave my court, you who gash your skin.”

 

And Aqhat himself kicks out the mourners. And unlike Job, which structurally is missing at least two chapters (we are left without a resolution on earth or heaven), Aqhat promises a sequel. The dead boy’s brother, Danel’s daughter, vows revenge

Now bless me, that I may go with your blessing;
favor me, that I may go with your favor.
I will kill my brother’s killer,
put an end to whoever put an end to my mother’s son.

It ends on a cliffhanger! Aqhat’s sister is in the enemy’s tent, having seduced her brother’s murderer…

Twice she gave him wine to drink,
she gave him wine to drink

The Book of Judith, included in the Catholic Deuterocanon, is the only similar Bible story i can think of

And if you follow out the words of your maidservant, God will accomplish something through you, and my lord will not fail to achieve his purposes…. “Therefore, when I, your servant, learned all this, I fled from them; and God has sent me to accomplish with you things that will astonish the whole world, as many as shall hear about them.
Judith 11:6,16

THE REPHAIM

In the Hebrew Bible, the Rephaim are described as “giants,” regularly more than six foot tall and (in the case of King Og) having a bed as wide as a modern queen-size.

“For only Og king of Bashan remained of the remnant of the rephaim. Indeed his bedstead was an iron bedstead. (Is it not in Rabbah of the people of Ammon?) Nine cubits is its length and four cubits its width, according to the standard cubit.
Deuteronomy 3:11

But in this story Danel — the father of Aqath from the previous story — invites them to his houes. These are divine ones, supernatural creatures

To his place the Rephaim went
to his place the divine ones went
the warriors of Baal and the warriors of Anat
“Go to my house, Rephaim
to my house I call you,
I call you to the midst of my palace.”
To his palace the Rephaim went,
to his place the divine ones went.

Whatever these things were both the Scriptures and the Canaanite stories agreed they were physically manifest in the land.

KIRTA

Kirta is an anti-Abraham, which is to say Abraham is an anti-Kirta. Kirta longs for a male her, and his focus on his future family and not worldly rewards reminds us of our father in faith.

Why should I want silver or gleaming gold,
along with its land,
or perpetual slaves,
three horses,
chariots in a courtyard,
a slave woman’s sons?
Give me sons that I may want be established,
give me a clan that I may be magnified!”

God instructs him to take a lamb up a mountain and sacrifice it

And the Bull, his father El, replied:
“Enough of your weeping, Kirta,
of shedding tears, Graceful Lad of El.
Wash yourself and put on rouge,
wash your forearms to the elbow,
from your fingers to your shoulder
Enter the shane of your tent;
take a lamb in your right hand,
a young animal in both your hands
the measure of your food that can be poured out.
Take the proper sacrificial bird,
pour wine into a silver goblet,
honey into a golden bowl,
and go up to the top of the tower,
climb to the height of the wall;
raise your hands to heaven,
sacrifice to the Bull, your father El
serve Baal with your sacrifice,
the son of Dagon with your game

The story of Abraham reverse is beginning, with God initially demanding a human sacrifice.

Now it came to pass after these things that God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!”

And he said, “Here I am.”

Then He said, “Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”
Genesis 22:1-2

Other aspects are reversed as well.

But while the seed of Abraham does not become a mighty army until half a millennium later, under Joshua, the Kirta does not have to wait

Your army will be powerful indeed
three million strong,
soldiers beyond counting,
archers beyond reckoning.
They will go in thousands, like a downpour,
and in ten thousands, like the early rain;
they will go two by two
three by three, all together.

Indeed, even after the Kingdom of Israel is established, it is the second king David, and not the first King Saul, who is known for those “tens thousands”

So the women sang as they danced, and said:

“Saul has slain his thousands,
And David his ten thousands.”

Then Saul was very angry, and the saying displeased him; and he said, “They have ascribed to David ten thousands, and to me they have ascribed only thousands. Now what more can he have but the kingdom?” So Saul eyed David from that day forward.
1 Samuel 18:7-9

though Abraham’s daughter-in-law is said to be the future mothers of tens of ten thousands during her engagement

So they said, “We will call the young woman and ask her personally.” Then they called Rebekah and said to her, “Will you go with this man?”

And she said, “I will go.”

So they sent away Rebekah their sister and her nurse, and Abraham’s servant and his men. And they blessed Rebekah and said to her:

“Our sister, may you become
The mother of thousands of ten thousands;
And may your descendants possess
The gates of those who hate them.”
Genesis 24:57-60

Kirta then is instructed to go to war against a neighboring kingdom. This contrasts with Abraham being able to conceive a son with his old wife

And the Lord visited Sarah as He had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as He had spoken. For Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him. And Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him—whom Sarah bore to him—Isaac. Then Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Now Abraham was one hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. And Sarah said, “God has made me laugh, and all who hear will laugh with me.” She also said, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? For I have borne him a son in his old age.”
Genesis 21:1-7

Unfortunately, Kirta vows a sacrifice to another god, which leads his own to abandon him (though in both stories, the alternative is to a “slavewoman’s son” — either theoretical as with Kirta, or already born as with Ishmael)

Give me Lady Hurriya,
the loveliest of your firstborn offspring:
her loveliness is like Anat’s
her beauty is like Astarte’s
her pupils are lapis lazuli
her eyes are gleaming alabaster

Both Abraham and Kirta are accosted for deception, for Abraham it was to protect the well-being of his sister Sarah…

So Abimelech rose early in the morning, called all his servants, and told all these things in their hearing; and the men were very much afraid. And Abimelech called Abraham and said to him, “What have you done to us? How have I offended you, that you have brought on me and on my kingdom a great sin? You have done deeds to me that ought not to be done.” Then Abimelech said to Abraham, “What did you have in view, that you have done this thing?”

And Abraham said, “Because I thought, surely the fear of God is not in this place; and they will kill me on account of my wife. But indeed she is truly my sister. She is the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife. And it came to pass, when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, that I said to her, ‘This is your kindness that you should do for me: in every place, wherever we go, say of me, “He is my brother.”’”
Genesis 20:8-13

…for Kirta it was hiding his own health from his own sister:

“She approached her brother and declared,
“Why did you deceive me?
How many months has he been ill?
How long has he been sick?
And the Hero Ilihu replied:
“For three months he has been ill,
for four Kirta has been sick.
Certainly, Kirta is reaching the end…”

The story concludes with God alarmed by Kirta’s sickness. The assembly of the gods have failed on their own to prevent this injustice

And El the Kind, the Compassionate, replied:
“Who among the gods can expel the sickness, drive out the disease?
But none of the gods answered him.
He spoke a second, then a third time:
“Who among the gods can expel the sickness, drive out the disease?”
But none of the gods answered him….

Indeed, the Heavenly Father often upbraids the divine ones, but being in heaven is not the same thing as matching the power or wisdom of the Creator

God stands in the congregation of the mighty;
He judges among the gods.

How long will you judge unjustly,
And show partiality to the wicked? Selah

Defend the poor and fatherless;
Do justice to the afflicted and needy.

Deliver the poor and needy;
Free them from the hand of the wicked.
Psalms 82:1-4

THE LOVELY GODS

The Lovely Gods is the story of the birth of Dusk and Dawn, most notable for the parallels to presentation of Israel and Judah as lovely supernatural women in the Book of Jeremiah. Both stories are presented ironically. Duck and Dawn are “lovely gods,” but endlessly hungry, and the overall effect is like something out of Thomas Ligotti.

Twin lovely gods,
day-old devours, one-day-old boys,
who suck the nipple of the breast.
They sit a lip to earth,
a lip to the heavens.
Then entered their mouths
the birds of the heavens,
and the fish of the sea.
As they move, bite upon bite
they stuffed on both their right and left
into their mouths, but they were not satisfied.

El takes for his own two women, and from these the lovely gods are born

So the two women became wives of El,
wives of El, his forever
He bent down, kissed their lips, their lips were so sweet
sweet as pomegranates
As he kissed, there was conception,
as he embraced, their was passion

The Book of Jeremiah presents a dramatization of Hebrew history, substituting Israel and Judah for the women, and the fullness of Israel as the lovely gods:

The LORD said also to me in the days of Josiah the king: “Have you seen what backsliding Israel has done? She has gone up on every high mountain and under every green tree, and there played the harlot. And I said, after she had done all these things, ‘Return to Me.’ But she did not return. And her treacherous sister Judah saw it. Then I saw that for all the causes for which backsliding Israel had committed adultery, I had put her away and given her a certificate of divorce; yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but went and played the harlot also.
Jeremiah 3:6-8

The Lovely Gods is also disturbing as Death the Ruler

Death the Ruler sits:
in his hand a staff of bereavment,
in his hands a staff of widowhood.
The pruner prunes him like a vine;
the binder binds him like a vine;
he is felled to the terrace like a vine.”

appears to be a type of God:

I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me.

“I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned. If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you. By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples.
John 15:1-8

EL’S DRINKING PARTY

The Incarnate God of the Bible is often presented as a good guest to have at a party

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ But wisdom is justified by her children.”
Matthew 11:18-19

In one of His parables, He castigates sleeing guards, who are not on watchful enough

Take heed, watch and pray; for you do not know when the time is. It is like a man going to a far country, who left his house and gave authority to his servants, and to each his work, and commanded the doorkeeper to watch. Watch therefore, for you do not know when the master of the house is coming—in the evening, at midnight, at the crowing of the rooster, or in the morning— lest, coming suddenly, he find you sleeping. And what I say to you, I say to all: Watch!”
Mark 13:33-37

El’s Drinking Party may be a literary background of this. The short plot is almost the reverse, with a drunken Moon-God stuck in his animal form. The goddesses try to feed him steak, but are shooed away by the guards.

Astarte and Anat he approached;
Astarte had a steak prepared for him
And Anat a shoulder cut.
The gatekeep of El’s house rebuked them,
not to prepare steak for a dog,
not prepare a shoulder cut for a houand.

Jesus’s reversal of the fault of the guards — instead of being too cautious, bad guards are those who are not cautious enough!

Less seriously, El’s Drinking Party ends with a cure for a hangover — including “hair of the dog”!

What one should apply on his forehead: dog hair;
and the top of pqq and
one should apply them together with fresh olive oil

The Holy Spirit provides numerous empirical methods of identifying the Messiah. The most eloquent Jewish critics of Christianity, like Rabbi Federow, emphasis this in guarding against an identification of Jesus as the promised Son of David.

Conclusion

These Stories from Ancient Canaanite are fascinating. The Bible not only parallels them in many places, but reverses certain elements or themes. These reversal may well be important to fully understanding what the Bible says.

That said, the commentary is not great. The editor assumes the author already understands that the reader knows the pattern of ancient near-East narrative and poetry. The commentary includes unsupported patter about the LORD dethroning El that is found nowhere in the Bible. It is less of an intellectual overview as The Assembly of the Gods, less of a literary introduction than anything by Robert Alter, and less of a rigorous understanding of biblical Context than the works of Michael Heiser. I’m very glad I read it — it is short and thought provoking — but is recommended only for those who have already read other works on the Canaanite background of the Hebrew Bible.

I read the Stories from Ancient Canaanite in the Kindle edition.

The Academic Papers of Michael Heiser

Heiser, Michael. (2006) “Are [the LORD] and El Distinct Deities in Psalm 82 and Deuteronomy 32?. ” Faculty Publications and Presentations. [PDF]
Heiser, Michael. (2007) “Anthropomorphism in P.” Pacific Northwest Regional Meeting of the Social of Biblical Literature. [PDF]
Heiser, Michael. (2009) “The Old Testament Respond to Ancient Near-East Pagan Divination.” Of Global Wizardry: Techniques of Pagan Spirituality and a Christian Response. [PDF]
Heiser, Michael. (2017) “The Divine Council in the Pentateuch.” Evangelical Theological Society 2017, San Antonio. [PDF]

Dr. Michael Heiser is one of my most influential Hebrew Bible scholars. Along with Rev. Steven Boint and Dr. Robert Alter, Dr. Heiser focuses on what the Hebrew writings meant to the people who wrote them. These translators come from different religious and academic traditions — Alter is a Jewish professor, Boint is a Reformed minister, and Heiser ministers in the Evangelical tradition.

Both Alter and Heiser argue that the literary background of the Hebrew Bible was the Canaanite religion, which I’ve referred to as the Old Religion of the Habiru. Because of this I read the Ba’al Cycle and paid attention to how the Canaanite gods were referenced in the Scriptures. Heiser also argues that Second Temple Literature, such as the adventures of the deuterocanon and the First Book of Enoch, are part of the literary background to the New Testament.

The four articles above, which are linked to as PDFs but which are also available as Kindle singles, concern the murky period when the Canaanite religion was becoming what we would recognize as Judaism. An aspect of the Old Religion were the Divine Councils (plural). Perhaps a Catholic reader might call these Communions, in the sense of the Council of the Dead… the Communion of Saints?

Scholars whose divine council research focuses on Canaan and Israel see either three of four tiers within the council, with members of all tiers engaged somewhere in the council’s activities… Even ancestral spirits of the human dead are called as council (“sod”) at Ugarit….

So what’s the point of the divine council? God certainly doesn’t need one, but he chooses to allow his intelligent creations participate with him in how he wants things done — sort of like the Church. God doesn’t need us, either, but he has chosen to propel his will on earth through his believing household.”

From these short papers I was able to see a particular passage in a new way. I had already learned from Alter that when the text states that a superior says X, and then immediately the superior says Y, with no response from the inferior, it indicates a meaningful silence. The inferior party might disagree, or be shocked, or distrustful, but out of deference is not interrupting the inferior.

So take this passage in Genesis, as translated by Alter. The scene is Jacob and his smart, greedy uncle Laban. Laban has deceived Jacob into accidentally marrying a daughter he did not want, leading to the grief of both. But Laban has done well.

I’ve highlighted a specific verse for reference.

And it happened, when Rachel bore Joseph, that Jacob said to Laban,” Send me off, that I may go to my place and to my land. Give me my wives and my children, for whom I have served you, that I may go, for you know the service that I have done for you.”

And Laban said to him, If, pray, I have found favor in your eyes, I have prospered and the LORD has blessed me because of you.”

And he said, “Name me your waves that I may give them.”

And he said, “You know how I have served…”

The New King James Version translates the highlighted portion differently:

And it came to pass, when Rachel had borne Joseph, that Jacob said to Laban, “Send me away, that I may go to my own place and to my country. Give me my wives and my children for whom I have served you, and let me go; for you know my service which I have done for you.”

And Laban said to him, “Please stay, if I have found favor in your eyes, for I have learned by experience that the Lord has blessed me for your sake.” Then he said, “Name me your wages, and I will give it.”
Genesis 30:25-28 (NKJV)

Heiser’s translation of that verse, and his exegesis, reads

But Laban said to him, ‘if I have found favor in your sight, I have learned by divination that [the LORD] has blessed me because of you.

The root of the word ‘divination’ here is these same as that practice condemned in Deut. 18:9-14. ”
The Old Testament Response to Pagan Divination

Indeed, Alter in his footnotes acknowledges this!

I have prospered. Everywhere else in the Bible, the verb niesh means “to divine,” but that makes little sense here, and so there is plausibility in the proposal of comparative semiticists that this particular usage reflects an Akkadian cognate meaning “to prosper.”

Laban, the greedy the smart man, who sacrificed his daughter to ensnare Israel, divined the cause of his blessings: Jacob was in his house. He persued knowledge without love.

Heiser looks not only for the cultural and linguistic context of the Scripture, but into its grammar too. For instance, its widely expected that the the earliest part of the Bible we have is the result of editing work conducted in Babylon after the First Temple was destroyed. One source for this, one of the ancient written or oral traditions combined into the Torah, may have been a “priestly” source that particularly focused on sacrifices. Some have argued that these “priestly” sources did not understand God to be as anthropomorphic as others. Heiser quotes another academic as writing

Blatant anthromorophisms such as God’s walking in the gardens of Eden, making Adam’s and Eve’s clothes, closing Noah’s ark, smelling Noah’s sacrifice, wrestling with Jacob, standing ont he rock at Meribah, and being seen by Moses at Sinai/Horeb are absent in [the priestly source].

(The view of God as anthropomorphic, of having human attributes, was widespread in the ancient and classical near east, from God hosting a heavenly feast with wine in the canaanite religion, to the Son of God hosting a last supper with wine in Christianity.)

But Heiser argues against this, using a database driven approach that reminded me of the debunking in The Treasure of Rennes-le-Chateau:

The comparative totals are quite interesting and defy expectations. Rather than [other sources, called “J” and “E”] containing more instances of clear anthropomorphisms, it is [the Priestly source, “P”] that outnumbers J and E. There were sixteen instance for P compared to a total of nine for J and nine for E. P, therefore, has almost as many anthromorphisms as J and E combined with respect to these searches.

Yet Heiser is also willing to address controversies that are foolish. The 82nd Psalm includes the striking opening

God stands in the congregation of the mighty;
He judges among the gods.
How long will you judge unjustly,
And show partiality to the wicked? Selah…
All the foundations of the earth are unstable.
I said, “You are gods,
And all of you are children of the Most High.
Psalm 82:1-2,6

Which Christ on earth referenced:

Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, “You are gods”’? If He called them gods, to whom the word of God came (and the Scripture cannot be broken), do you say of Him whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?
John 10:34-36

In a triumph of pedantic scholarship, some read this and conclude

1. God is judging the Gods
2. But God is standing
3. That means God is acting as both prosecutor and judge
4. But prosecutors re lower than Judge
5. Therefore the psalmist means to write “The LORD stands in the congregation of the might; God judges among the gods.”
6. This is not biblical parallelism, but a statement that the LORD is separate, distinct, and inferior to God

Heiser argues against this not only on literary but contextual and historic grounds. A bad argument easily dispatched.

Ironically, there may be a different way to see the One True God as both seated and standing in the Psalm, but neither academic mentions that.

So what is the point? Heiser, directly, does not tell us. These articles appear to stand alone.

But behind them appears to be an internally consistent cosmology. Both The LORD and God are presented with human attributes in Genesis. The LORD and God are not distinct entities, but the same One God. He, the One God, creates and guides creation, with both natural and supernatural creatures assisting in this work. But as there as bad natural deeds so can there be bad unnatural deeds. Discerning this is important for what is to come.

I read these articles in the Kindle editions.

Impressions of “Super Mario: How Nintento Conquered America,” by Jeff Ryan

Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America is a dull and non-insightful book you should avoid. Read another one instead. Or an article online. Skip it.

Jeff Ryan is the author of Super Marior: How Nintento Conqueered America, a book that was both superficial and dull. And Blake Harris was the author of Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation. But they are both writers with an interest in games. Both Ryan and Blake have active lefty twitter accounts. Both wrote histories of the console market that I grew up adoring.

But the books are very different. Console Wars is structured around a human history, and the author has either conducted extensive interviews or has fabricated an astonishing amount of material. Before reading Console Wars, “Sega” and “Nintendo” were just brands and machines: I grew to appreciate them as collections of people, with dreams and fears, armies that fought for my amusement. On his twitter feed earlier this year Blake Harris posted this, “There’s No Such Thing as Nintendo,” and this I think sums up the genius of Console Wars: using the messaging of pop brands to understand the human excitement, ambition, and struggle in the hidden real world.

Super Mario is almost the reverse. Very little in Ryan’s book exceeded what you can find in Wikipedia. While Blake’s Console Wars deconstructed Sonic the Hedgehog, taking the reader into the corporate politics of all who wanted to control it, Ryan reminds us it’s ridiculous for Mario to appear in a Sonic game! Console Wars included the perspective of industry titans who soured on the industry, and those who were booted out. Super Mario reminds us that Shigeru Miyamoto rode a bicycle to work!

Even though Console Wars primary follows Sega of America CEO Tom Kalinski, Nintendo is discussed in more depth in Blake’s book than Ryan’s! Indeed, a free postscript that Blake wrote for the Huffington Post arguably contains more about Nintendo’s inner workings than the whole of Ryan’s book.

Ryan’s work is also thematically inconsistent. Super Mario was published in 2012, just as gaming was entering its current culture war. It’s obvious the last few chapters of the book were written in that milleu, because only at the end of the book are the sort of faux-sociological explorations of sexism introduced. Console Wars, on the other hand, has a unity of tone and a real-life beginning which book-ends the real-life end. There’s an irony here: Ryan applauds what he imagines to be Nintendo’s efforts at avoiding the “Comic-Con” crowd: Harris wrote this a panel of the Nintendo and Sega leadership at Comic-Con.

As another blogger mentioend in a review:

There are bits of sarcasm and bite to his voice which are all-too common among the smug pop-culture journalist crowd, and there were times when it got to be a little much. Skip the parentheticals, and you’ll manage to dodge most of that (I seem to have picked a little something up from this book after all. Sorry, Jeff).

Give Super Mario a pass. Read Console Wars by Blake Harris instead.

Impressions of “The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran,” by Christoph Luxenberg

Three centuries after Christ, a Syrian named Nestorius was horrified by those who denied that Christ was truly God. When he became the Patriarch of Constantinople, he ordered the burning of a monestary of Arian monks who believed that Christ was merely the Son of God. Soon, he would go farther and emphasize that Christ was so divine that Christ’s Godly person was not Christ’s human person.

Or that is what we recall.

From our perspective, these disagreements are bewildering. It’s hard to understand what caused such confusion between Arian Bishops, such as Ulfilas who wrote

I, Ulfila, bishop and confessor, have always so believed, and in this, the one true faith, I make the journey to my Lord;

I believe in one God
the Father,
the only unbegotten and invisible,
and in his only-begotten son,
our Lord and God,
the designer and maker of all creation,

having none other like him (so that one alone among all beings is God the Father, who is also the God of our God);

and in one Holy Spirit,
the illuminating and sanctifying power,

as Christ said after his resurrection to his apostles: “And behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you; but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49) and again “But ye shall receive power, when the Holy Ghost is come upon you” (Acts 1:8); being neither God (the Father) nor our God (Christ), but the minister of Christ… subject and obedient in all things to the Son; and the Son, subject and obedient in all things to God who is his Father… (whom) he ordained in the Holy Spirit through his Christ.

And Nestorius, who condemned Arius, Ulfilias, and others in this letter to Pope Celestine I:

Blind men! They do not remember the account of the holy fathers who openly contradict them:

We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Son of God,
incarnate of the Holy Spirit
and the Virgin Mary.

For this statement is with the title which signifies each nature, Christ… is co-essential with the divinity of the Father. But the humanity born in these latter times is from the holy Virgin; on account of its conjunction with divinity, the humanity is worshipped by angels and humans together.

Whatever the motives behind these words, Nestorius was sent into exile, and the Church of the East was founded. This Church for a while was the largest branch of Christianity — a Bishop celebrated the eucharist in Beijing a millennia before Matteo Ricci reached China’s shores, and apostles to India baptized the “St. Thomas Christians” long before Norman Kings reigned in London.

And, if Christoph Luxenberg is correct, a Nestorian lectionary fell into the hand of an illiterate Arab living in an Aramaic town, and became the Holy Koran. In 2000, he published The Syrio-Aramaic Reading of the Koran.  He is still in hiding.

Luxenberg completely dismisses the hadiths and sunnah (sayings and stories of Muhammad) as either predating or postdating the Koran, and insists on a text only interpretation. Next, he argues the use of Old Poetic Arabic is inappropriate for understanding the vowel-less text of the Koran, and instead the constants shoudl be read as if they are Syrio-Aramaic words.

I am completely unable to judge the validity of this approach. But the results are striking

As Luxenberg translates the word “Koran” itself as Lectionary (a Christian book to guide church services), Surah 41:3, where the Koran describes itself

A Book whose signs have been made distinct as an Arabic Quran

becomes

A scripture that we have translated as an Arabic lectionary

And Surah 41:44

If We had made it a foreign Quran, they would have said: “Why are not its signs made distinct? Foreign and Arabic?”

becomes

If we had composed it as a lectionary in a foreign language, they would have said: “One ought to have translated its scripts!”

and Surah 12:1-2

These are the signs of the Book that is clear. Verily We have sent it down as an Arabic Quran; mayhap ye will understand.

should be

These are the signs of the elucidated Scripture. We have sent them down as an Arabic lectionary so that you may understand.

Numerous other examples are given as well, including re-translatiosn fo portions of the Koran promising “virgins” and “youths” in paradise as descriptions of a heavenly Wedding Feast

Surah 76:19

Round amongst them go boys of perpetual youth, whom when one sees, he thinks them pearls unstrung.

becomes

Iced fruits pass around them; to see them, you would think they were dispersed pearls.

A few of the shorter books of the Koran are retranslated entirely. The ending of of Surah 96, for instance, changes from

May he then call his clique. We shall call the henchmen.
No!
Prostrate yourself
and approach.

becomes

May he call on his idol. He will call on the transitory.
You ought not to heed him at all,
perform your divine service
and take part in the liturgy of the Eucharist.

(while the last time is notably longer in Luxenberg’s translation, the word being translated is “iqtarab”, which is still used to mean “celebrate the Eucharist” in Arabic-speaking churches).

There are may more of these examples, but you get the point. The Koran may not be what it is believed to be. Islam emerged from a world where Christianity in schism against itself, and like other splits (such as the Tai Ping or Lutheranism) may descend from a sincere attempt to get to the core of Christianity occulted by Catholic-Orthodox tradition.

Sadly, the book assumes a familiar with Arabic and Aramaic I do not have.  I cannot judge any of these claims.

If Islam did emerge from a Nestorian lectionary, Nestorius’s program backfired spectacularly.

Nestorius’ attempt to defend the divinity of Christ against the Arians has lead to the censor and destruction of countless Christianity communities. Arius, Nestorius, the Catholics and the Orthodox once said together, “We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary.”

Such words will lead to your execution, in the world under what the Lectionary has become.

In 1915, the oldest surviving copy of any work by Patriarch Nestorius, The Bazaar of Heracleides — was destroyed by the Turks.