I propose to start our session with a review of the narrative so far. Keeping our eye on “evil”, we’ll discuss again what evil is and what the explanation for evil has been in polytheism, monolatry, and monotheism (cosmic monism).
Now that we’ve seen what Hayes calls the “really huge problem” with monotheism (and I call the “fatal flaw”), we’ll go on to explore the Jewish reaction called apocalypticism. Bart Ehrman does his usual outstanding job setting the scene and we go on to read five examples including the enormously influential vision in Daniel 7. Note that “son of man” was a normal colloquialism for human being but because the phrase was picked up and used to refer to a heavenly being who descended on the clouds to render judgment (and had the appearance of a human) we need to amend the JSB translation “human being.” Note the absence of any battle in Daniel 7 and its appearance in Daniel 11-12.
We now enter an age when eschatology (the study of the end times) looms large. Although there were previous prophetic visions of the renewal of Israel (Ezekiel’s dry bones), the idea of a climactic battle in which YHWH forever vanquishes the demonic force had to wait until the idea of a demonic force entered the picture, perhaps in the late third century BCE.
Note that the “kingdom of God” was expected by apocalypticists to be an earthly kingdom.
Thanks again to Shaye Cohen for taking the time to join us and reflect on some of the issues of the course! You may be motivated to watch more: viz. his undergraduate course on the Hebrew Bible (link). It’s also on iTunesU (link) along with a second course on The Hebrew Bible in Judaism and Christianity (link).
Our short discussion of the two answers in Job to the question “Why do bad things happen to good people?” might be summarized in this way: for the prose envelope: “Congratulations! You passed the test! Truly sorry for any inconvenience. Any qualms about your replacement children should be mitigated by the outstanding beauty of your new daughters.” And for the poetic section, either “You wouldn’t be able to understand the answer even if I deigned to tell it to you.” or “You think you can make be accountable for my actions? Get used to it.”
I’ve been nudged to provide a description of how each class session fits into the overall narrative, so here it is for “The Triumph of Monotheism and its Consequences.” We’ve seen in the biblical text the constant admonition to avoid idolatry. This strongly suggests that those advocating monolatry (only YHWH may be worshipped) had a hard time of it at first and that it only gradually came to be the norm. We see the same story for monotheism, with clear statements that other gods are figments of the imaginations of “the nations” coming only after the exile. But that view did prevail and, combined with the traditional understanding that God rewarded the righteous and punished the wicked, left a serious question unanswered: since bad things (which I’ve dubbed “evil”) could only have come from God, why has he chosen to impose them on righteous people as well as on the wicked? (Tune in next time!) Addendum: read Ezekiel 18 for a clear exilic statement that reward and punishment are personal, not corporate.
[Don’t overlook the comments to the previous post! And if you have something to contribute, please respond to those comments or leave a comment on this post!]
I’m delighted that Prof. Shaye Cohen will be joining us for the first hour on Monday. I’ve asked him to respond to a few questions which are raised by our material but there will be an opportunity to ask your own questions. (Please respect the very limited amount of time available and ask only questions raised by our readings.)
During the second hour, I’ll encourage you to provide feedback on the experience of being in the study group so that I can make adjustments. The very best way to offer feedback is to comment on the latest post (right now that would be this one), by clicking on the title and scrolling down the resulting page). This will give other SGMs a chance to consider your opinion and respond to it, and me a chance to respond. Perhaps a dialogue may even ensue!
Because we’re not on iSites, we can’t use the standard feedback tool; therefore, if you don’t want your feedback to be available to others, just email it to me (or telephone me for that matter!). I’m always grateful to know how you feel things are going and to have suggestions for improvement.
I will take a few minutes to ask everyone to say which reading assignment was the least helpful, and which assignment they benefited from (or enjoyed) the most.
We then move on to consider Kaufmann’s insights into the difference between polytheism and monotheism. We’ll finish by looking at Job and its important role in our narrative.
Thanks to everyone for the lively discussion! I was particularly pleased that you seemed to enjoy the Smith paper as much as I did. I hope you went away convinced that the Israelites took a long journey on their way to cosmic monism. Now we’ll have a chance to see its downside.
If you’ve got anything to say relating to our session, please click on the headline of this post and scroll down to the bottom of the resulting page and have your say!
After the hiatus, we’re back! Our goal this week is to explore the central idea of covenant. I assert that the idea of reciprocal responsibility with a selected people makes perfect sense in the context of polytheism and especially monolatry and very little sense in a world presided over by a single, universal God. We’ll discuss the extent to which this assertion is plausible starting with Morton Smith’s engaging description of the function of the gods in all ancient middle eastern civilizations. If successful, we should end up with the fundamental notion propounded by the prophets: Yahweh rewards those who keep his commandments (the righteous) and punishes those who fail to do so. Note that the relevant scope of responsibility was originally corporate: all Israel would be judged for the sins of the idolators. (This is the most important of what I’ve been calling “the anthropomorphic expectations.”)
A heads-up! I recently viewed the recently-aired NOVA program Secrets of Noah’s Ark online and found that it avoided all of my complaints about previous biblically-oriented material. It’s main story line is an attempt to build a large boat according to the description contained in a cuneiform tablet which predates the Noah story. You’ll learn a lot of important additional information as well, including defenses of the notion that the flood story we have was written during or following the exile. Extremely well-done and highly recommended: (link)
Thanks to everyone for pitching in on the discussion of Ong and Frankfort! And special thanks to those who described them as challenging. If you’re like Ed or me, you’ll be surprised when you return to Frankfort to find that it’s not only much more understandable but actually brilliant stuff. It’s still the classic discussion of mythopoeic thought after 70 years, so he must have been doing something right.
I realize I forgot to mention my favorite MITism: What kind of unit measure is a milli-Helen? (answer below)
I also realized that I’ve failed to point out that when we ask the question “What is evil?” we have already committed a retrojection. That statement of the question assumes that evil is a category which of course we find natural as a result of our familiarity with the cosmic dualism which is fundamental to Christianity and therefore western civilization. But, as we saw, ancient man did not use such categories: he wouldn’t understand the question. His version would have been: “What causes things to be angry with me?”
Some suggestions for taking advantage of the extra week: read the Book of Job in the JSB; read these excerpts from Ehrman’s Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet (part 1; part 2; part 3; part 4); read Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God. The book on Q which I mentioned is Q, The Earliest Gospel by John Kloppenborg (on Amazon).
[Answer: enough beauty to launch a single ship]
Our first two weeks were oriented around an introduction to Modern Bible Scholarship. I know it was a whirlwind but that’s more or less the nature of the beast. Thanks for keeping up! We won’t return to our discussion of the Gospel of Mark; if you’d like to know which points I would have raised, just flip through the slides we didn’t get to.
We now turn to the narrative of the course. To be certain that everyone understands the outline of that narrative, we’ll look at the Ideas (Basic) Timeline. Please be sure to read the text which appears below the timeline as you move your cursor over each of the horizontal bars. (If you’re not using Chrome as your browser, do yourself a favor and install it now!)
We then turn to Ong and Frankfort, which I consider challenging indeed! Rather than continue with the presentation/discussion style we’ve had during the first two weeks, I’d like to try an alternative — which will work only with your full participation. You, the study group members, will set the agenda for the discussion at the outset. I’ll ask for suggestions for issues and topics to be discussed and we’ll formulate a list. Then we’ll discuss the items on the list.
If you possibly can, please read Book One of the Iliad so we can refer to it during our discussion. I can anticipate that we won’t have time to make it the focus of our discussion until our fourth week but it’s assigned because it provides more accessible examples for the assertions of Frankfort which he illustrates with less familiar Babylonian and Egyptian examples.