Biblical Literacy

Session 1: February 11, 2021

The Session Assignment [link]

The Lead-in:

I should mention again that the Overview and Ideas timelines are available as documents you can print and study offline [Overview and Ideas].

I've prepared a document with the questons we'll focus on in our discussion [link]. Please come up with tentative answers during your preparation!

I don't expect that all of you will be motivated enough to learn all of the dates for the various eras but I do hope most of you will learn the era names and their order of appearance. Indispensible dates are 586/7 for the conquest of the Kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians (and the destruction of the Temple of Solomon), 538 for Cyrus's decree that the Isrealites may return and rebuild the Temple, and 332 for Alexander's conquest of Palestine.

Important dates not shown are: 200 when the Seleucid kings took over the rule of Palestine from the Ptolomies of Egypt; and 168, the start of the Maccabean Revolt leading to a century of relatively independent rule which ended with Roman conquest in 63. One other important date is off the timeline: in 132-135 CE the second Jewish Revolt, lead by Simeon Bar Kokhba, failed with the Romans hellenizing the city and prohibiting Jews from living there.

We'll consider questions about the Terminology. I suggest that you review the list weekly until you feel you're familiar with it and know where to look when you encounter these terms.

The retrojections are a favorite hobby-horse of mine so I'll try to be brief in describing them. We can consider each more deeply when we've covered the relevant material.

A note on the optional reading which is the portions of the book where Kugel expresses his conviction that one can't have it both ways: either the ancient interpreters established the meaning of the bible or modern biblical scholars have demonstrated that political and theological disputes motivated much of the text. Listening to Kugel's complaint is compelling and I recommend it if you have the time.

Late-breaking: First, the Harvard Library's scan of the assigned pages from the Jewish Study Bible has just arrived; a link is on the Canvas course website. Second, Zoom is now up to version 5.5.2 so we all need to upgrade again before Thursday!

The Lead-out:

Thanks to all for a highly-interactive session!

The major topic, quite appropriately, was the idea of evil, since Christian interpreters have implanted the notion of the second creation story as describing The Fall of Man. We distinquished two meanings of the word "evil": 1) the sense in which Christians like Rick Warren use the term, to describe a second cosmic power, antagonistic to God, which causes bad things to happen and which impels people to sin, and 2) the sense in which it describes one of the choices which humans have in the moral realm (as in Hayes).

We considered whether the second creation story should be read as somehow endowing man with a sinful nature or is best read as introducing the idea that the created world is a moral one in which mankind has a choice between good and bad and in which there is a consequence for the choice made. In this connection, we considered whether the prohibition to eat the fruit was a "set up" in the sense that the plot of the story demanded a violation. I think we reached a consensus that this was a plausible reading.

So, when considering what are the "truths" the author of the second story wished to convey, in addition to the more etiological ones (snakes without limbs, pain of childbirth, effort to produce food as a farmer), we added the truth that men were moral agents able to choose between the good and the bad.

We'll carry over our discussion to next week, considering what to make of the inaccurate assertion of YHWH that you will die after eating of the fruit, whether Adam and Eve were created mortal or immortal (the text, of course, does not say but we can bring logic to bear), and what "the mark of Cain" means based on the text.

To a question about Samaria, the portion of Palestine south of Galilee and north of Judea, I guessed that it was part of the Kingdom of Israel following the United Monarchy; that is correct, it was the southern-most part. For our purposes, it's important to realize that a group of Samarian priests and their followers split off at the time the United Monarchy was founded. Asserting that they, and not those returning from Babylon, were the true Israel, they built a Temple on Mount Gerizim in the fifth century and formed their own Torah. Other Jews looked down on the Samaritans as aberrant and this gives additional meaning to the parable of the Good Samaritan: a Samaritan was not expected to be good.

The Takeaways:

  1. There are two independent (because irreconcilably inconsistent) creation stories in Genesis.
  2. The author of the first, written centuries after the second, wanted to super-sanctify the Sabbath.
  3. The author of the second, in addition to some etiological details, focussed on the discovery by Adam and Eve, through their disobedience, that they could choose to obey or not (they were moral actors); we thus conclude that God had created a moral world.