Thursday, 17 November 2011

David and Jonathan

I am beginning a review of a book asking whether the story of David and Jonathan, who 'loved' each other, is relevant to gay Jews and Christians. These comments are by way of preparation, before reading the book.

First, the story is a story and not factual, so we need to consider why the biblical author found this to be a theme worthy of exploring. Jonathan was son of King Saul, who dynastically might expect to be the next king. However, Saul is depicted as the first king, before the dynastic principle was established. The Samuel narrative is antagonistic to Saul, who has black moods, attempts to kill David, and finally consults a spirit ('witch') in Endor. The reader knows that David will be the next king, because Samuel anointed him, but we cannot be sure that Saul does. Before Samuel, the Judges narrative vilifies Saul's tribe, Benjamin, through the story starting with the rape and murder of a Levites' concubine. But for the grace of the other tribes, Benjamin would have been wiped out. Viewed as political propaganda in the writer's own period in the 4th century BCE, this story cuts the tribe of Benjamin down to size. Saul had many faults and many stupid policies: but his fundamental crime was to have offered sacrifice himself in Samuel's absence. At its heart, then, this story is about priestly monopoly.

Into this background, David the future king, and Saul's son Jonathan have a positive and friendly relationship which utterly contrasts with the fear and suspicion that Saul had. The whole story is one of bloodthirsty battle between Israelites and Philistines, and civil war between Saul and David. David is presented as an innocent party, not killing Saul opportunistically in order to take the throne. Even when given the throne by an Amalekite, Saul's killer who wished to ingratiate himself, he avenged Saul's death by killing him. So his hands were seen to be clean. David had married Saul's daughter (the bride price had been 100 Philistine foreskins, set to ensure David was killed) and treats Jonathan as the closest of brothers. Saul himself was the problem, not his family or his troops. "An evil spirit from the LORD tormented him" (I Sam 16.14)The friendship was instant - "the soul of Janathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul" (1 Sam 18.1). Jonathan made a covenant with David, and gave presents of clothes and weapons. He "delighted much in David" (19.1) and warned him that Saul had put out orders to kill him. They make another treaty of loyalty before David escaped "Jonathan made David swear again by his love for him; for he loved him as he loved his own soul" (20.17).
The treaty bound together David with Saul's house in perpetuity, thus protecting Benjaminites in the author's own day. The savage critique of monarchy under Saul should not adversely affect tribal relations at the time when the story was told.

Two book reviews

Two Bibliographic Short Reviews: 
Milton Eng,  The Days of our Years: A Lexical Semantic Study of the Life Cycle in Biblical Israel (LHBOTS, 464; New York/London: T & T Clark International, 2011. 
This is a lexical study of primarily male terms for the young, mature and elderly. Female terms are subordinated within an androcentric book structure. The first chapter deals with lexicography and semantics (“the meaning of words”). This study focuses on the range of potential meanings for particular terms such as boy, child, young man, man and old man, set within the context of other semantically related terms. Terms are considered only when the context is age-related. Chapter 2 briefly sets the life cycle (including life expectancy) in the context of the ancient near east, and less understandably Greece. Chapter 3 studies terms for the young, by which is meant pre-maturity, focusing particularly on na‘ar, yeled and taph. Chapter 4 concentrates on terms for mature men, with semantic studies of ‘ish, ‘adam and geber. Chapter 5, on the aged, covers zaqen and a range of related terms and phrases. His general conclusions support to use of modern linguistics in textual study, and in particular semantic profiles and semantic domains, calling for these to be included in the methodologies of new lexicons. There is much of interest in the detail of this book; but this reviewer would have liked to see a better gender balance, and less of the superficial comparisons with other unconnected socio-historical contexts and periods, from the stone age to the Industrial Revolution.


Matthew A.Thomas,  These are the Generations: Identity, Covenant, and the ‘Toledot’ Formula (LHBOTS, 551; London/New York: T&T Clark, 2011),.
This study examines the use of Toledot (“these are the generations of…”) in Genesis, Num. 3:1, the generations of Aaron and Moses, and Ruth 4:18, the line of David.Although recognizing the diachronic emphasis on sources in earlier studies, Thomas focuses on the possible intentions of the author of the final text. The toledot formula is viewed as a series of headings to focus the story of national origins. The inclusion of Ishmael and Esau is explained as their inclusion in the covenant, and the theme of reconciliation of brothers (Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Joseph and his brothers). In Gen. 2.4, the generations of heaven and earth is humanity, created from or ‘begat’ by the earth/dust (see p.73). Thereafter there are four further main headings, covering Adam, Noah, Shem and Jacob, characterised by the formula without waw. Subsequent subheadings begin with waw (e.g. of Terah, Ishmael, Isaac and Esau) forming a chiastic sequence. I am unconvinced by his addition of Isaac and Levi to make seven ‘narrowings’ of descent. Theses do not always make good books, and there is a substantial amount of repetition, loose writing, and redundancy. Thomas roots the study in form criticism, assuming antiquity, whereas his explanations relate more to redactional structuring. He works within a theological paradigm, affirming the unity of Torah teaching. The inclusion as family of Ishmael (Arabian tribes) and Esau (Edomite tribes) might be construed as a response to exclusivist tendencies under Nehemiah and Ezra, giving the structure a late date.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Date of Genesis - Gary Rendsburg

Gary Rendsburg reconstructs Israelite history without the Old Testament from inscriptions. An early Egyptian reference to Israel in the 2nd millennium BCE, to various kings and cities, to the phrase 'house of David' as presumed ancestor/king, to the Assyrian and Babylonian campaigns which led to displacement and exiles. He concludes therefore that OT historical narratives are rooted in real events. He divides scholars between those that assume the basic historical truth of the story (maximalists) and those who treat most elements as fiction (minimalists), identifying himself as a maximalist.

His 1986 book on Genesis dates the final version (redaction, or editing) to the period of David and Solomon. He accumulates details as being appropriate for this time - details of early Philistines, placenames and genealogies. There remains however (even if we accept this view) the issue of whether a traditional text was re-edited by post-exilic collectors (6th to 5th century) who were piecing together the old in order to recreate a new religious order. Our options are that the post-exilic scribes sumply collected, or put old traditions in a new redactionary framework, or made most of the material up as cultural fictions to validate their new order.

Rendsberg finds traces of old material. In particular, he posits an Israelite (northern) dialect with distinct vocabulary and grammar. If that can be confirmed, that is an interesting development. But I have argued elsewhere that a key term in this narrative-as-family-tree, the concubine has to be taken into account. The word for concubine, pilegesh, is a greek loan word. The feminine of pallax, 'young man' is pallakis, 'young woman' or 'concubine'.  Though it now is defined as a secondary wife, the word pallakis starts out as 'a man and his girl', as we would say. The problem is that a Greek loan word assumes a period of Greek influence. Whilst we know that this began in earnest in the 4th century BCE around the time of Alexander the Great, pushing it back into the 12th century BCE or earlier is nonsensical. There were, it is true, some small Greek enclaves further north on the Levant coast, and Greek ships undoubtedly landed in Philistine sea ports in Palestine, but this is not enough to influence family customs in the interior. The slave wife whom Rachel gave to Jacob (whose children were regarded as legitimate) is named as a concubine after her mistress Rachel's death. Reuben had sex with her, which seems to have been an attempted coup d'etat which went down badly. This is from the layer that called Jacob 'Israel', which I take to be a late validation of Israelite claims. Abraham also had concubines (Gen 25) who were paid off and sent away so that their children would not inherit. Although this may not seem significant, it illustrates that something is happening in the editorial shaping of this late redaction. Material such as that contained in Genesis was represented on various occasions: whilst there may  well be early material, we also have to take account of later manipulation.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

The Bible, a Troubling Text

SUGIRTHARAJAH, R.S., Troublesome Texts: The Bible in Colonial and Contemporary Culture (Sheffield, Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2008, pp.vii + 161. £35.00/$70.00/€47.50. ISBN 978-1-906055-38-7; ISSN 1747-9650.

The Bible IS a troublesome text. Its interpretation has been over the centuries the cause of major conflict. It has been used to promote slavery and patriarchalism. It has been the cutural symbol of empire, the basis of education systems in non-Christian developing regions. From it identity is claimed, and land disputes are fomented. Missionaries, by translating God as Ancestor, replaced tribal histories with an over-arching Biblicist ‘history’ in which Adam and Abraham are common ancestors, so biblical violence becomes an acceptable political model, and patriarchy-with-polygamy a legitimate social means of repressing women.

    This thought-provoking collection of conference papers asks uncomfortable questions about Biblical hermeneutics. In ‘Gautama and the Galilean’, Sugirtharajah uses his Sri Lankan background to explore how and why Victorian theologians constructed lives of Buddha and Jesus, revealing rampant racism. There is however another side to this: enough ‘Orientalists’ took the task seriously enough to contribute to the preservation of texts which has turned Buddhism from a local cult to a respected global world religion.
Buddhism was encountered as an indigenous religion separately in Nepal and in Sri Lanka, and gradually the similarities and differences between the two observed and the conclusion reached that these were two traditions of a single religion, which came to be named Hinayana (lesser vehicle) and Mahayana (greater vehicle). Hinayana (also referred to as Theravada) was regarded as purer than Mahayana, which was considered syncretistic with local pagan deities and spirits. Today, Mahayana belief and ritual would be treated philosophically and symbolically. The Dalai Lama (leader of Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism) is globally known and respected for his spiritual wisdom. Sugirtharajah notes that the reason for the study of Buddhism was to discredit it, and finds many quotations to support this. There is another side to the story and academic study of Pali texts began, albeit slowly. Lives of Jesus have abounded over the past two centuries, are mostly devotional in intent (some thrive on being controversial), and tell us more about the writer than about the historical Jesus. My view is that even the canonical gospels are fictional hagiography which owe more to the need to demonstrate fulfilment of scripture than to historical recollections. Unfortunately, fewer sayings of Jesus have survived than words of the Buddha.
Chapter 2 is on ‘Subjecting the Johannine Letters to Postcolonial Criticism’, concluding that the letters have a dogmatic, imperialistic tone demanding compliance, but that the new message being promulgated owes some informal debt to Buddhism. To ‘walk in the truth’ and ‘walk in love’ is likened to the Buddhism requirement to ‘walk by dhamma’, a praxis-centred practical religion by which ‘everyone who does justice is born again’ and ‘everyone who loves is born of God’ (3 Jn 4, 2 Jn 4-6, I Jn 2.29, 1 Jn 4.7). For the writer, actions not words indicate a person’s faith, salvation by works contrasting with Paul’s salvation by faith and God’s grace. Unfortunately, this worthy ideal is presented as a demand to be obeyed and not an aspiration to be taken to heart. Chapter 3 focuses on the Sermon on the Mount read in India as a basis for ethical spirituality, for example by Gandhi and Roy. He notes that after independence it was replaced by Leviticus 19-26, a ‘roadmap’ for state building, John’s Gospel (mystical), liberation theology and identity hermeneutics. Chapter 4 looks toward next steps: these are for interpreters to explore power-knowledge relevantly. It challenges the dominant hermeneutic by demanding emphases are shifted and silences are vocalised. Chapter 5 explores ideas of God after the tsunami of boxing day 2004, where images of all-powerful and compassionate deity is exploded. Chapter 6 focuses on the link between Bible interpretation and conflict, even violent conflict. Those who study and interpret the Bible from outside the powered elite risk scorn and gagging, even lynching. For Sri Lanka, this is a call for open and honest multi-faith dialogue. Chapter 7 looks at the Bible industry as a form of cultural imperialism, for repression towards a dominant view instead of being a sea of challenging and exploratory stories. Chapter 8, ‘Future Imperfect” calls for attitudes of exclusivity towards the Bible as word of God is replaced by a recognition that the Bible itself was (and is) a site of ideological battle, and has to sit beside the scriptures of other faiths as together charting the spiritual questings of humankind. Chapter 9 ends the compilation autobiographically of the writer’s journey and motivation, calling for creative and imaginative scholarship.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Sugirtharajah - Letters of John.

Chapter 2 of Troublesome Texts is on ‘Subjecting the Johannine Letters to Postcolonial Criticism’, concluding that the letters have a dogmatic, imperialistic tone demanding compliance, but that the new message being promulgated owes some informal debt to Buddhism. To ‘walk in the truth’ and ‘walk in love’ is likened to the Buddhism requirement to ‘walk by dhamma’, a praxis-centred practical religion by which ‘everyone who does justice is born again’ and ‘everyone who loves is born of God’ (3 Jn 4, 2 Jn 4-6, I Jn 2.29, 1 Jn 4.7). For the writer, actions not words indicate a person’s faith, salvation by works contrasting with Paul’s salvation by faith and God’s grace. Unfortunately, this worthy ideal is presented as a demand to be obeyed and not an aspiration to be taken to heart.
[Chapter 3, coming soon, is on the Sermon on the Mount and the struggle for independence in India].

Friday, 18 June 2010

Troublesome Colonial Texts

A brief review of the following will appear in The Society for Old Testament Booklist for 2011 and I offer here an extended version:
Sugirtharajah, R.S.,Troublesome Texts: The Bible in Colonial and Contemporary Culture (Sheffield, Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2008. £35.00/$70.00.
This thought-provoking collection of essays asks uncomfortable questions about Biblical hermeneutics. In ‘Gautama and the Galilean’ (chapter 1), Sugirtharajah uses his Sri Lankan background to explore how and why Victorian theologians constructed lives of Buddha and Jesus, revealing rampant racism. There is however another side to this: enough ‘Orientalists’ took the task seriously enough to contribute to the preservation of texts which has turned Buddhism from a local cult to a respected global world religion.

Buddhism was encountered as an indigenous religion separately in Nepal and in Sri Lanka, and gradually the similarities and differences between the two observed and the conclusion reached that these were two traditions of a single religion, which came to be named Hinayana (lesser vehicle) and Mahayana (greater vehicle). Hinayana (also referred to as Theravada) was regarded as purer than Mahayana, which was considered syncretistic with local pagan deities and spirits. Today, Mahayana belief and ritual would be treated philosophically and symbolically. The Dalai Lama (leader of Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism) is globally known and respected for his spiritual wisdom. Sugirtharajah notes that the reason for the study of Buddhism was to discredit it, and finds many quotations to support this. There is another side to the story and academic study of Pali texts began, albeit slowly. Lives of Jesus have abounded over the past two centuries, are mostly devotional in intent (some thrive on being controversial), and tell us more about the writer than about the historical Jesus. My view is that even the canonical gospels are fictional hagiography which owe more to the need to demonstrate fulfilment of scripture than to historical recollections. Unfortunately, fewer sayings of Jesus have survived than words of the Buddha. Using colonial/postcolonial analysis, Sugirtharajah points to cultural and religious imperialism by Christians, designed to promote Christianity as the ideology of the empire, the acceptance of which removes indigenous peoples from being regarded as heathern savages.
I have written further about missionary activity in http://eprints.worc.ac.uk/787
[critique of chapter 2 on the letters of 'John' to follow]

Saturday, 1 May 2010

The Torah (Pentateuch) a political fiction?

David Sperling writes (1998) about the nature and purpose of "the original Torah", focusing on "the political intent of the Bible's writers". He takes further the main point I made in Creating the Old Testament: The Emergence of the Hebrew Bible in 1989 and also the work of Niels Peter Lemche, Ancient Israel: A New History of Isralelite Society in 1988. We all emphasise that Old Testament readers should stick to the evidence. The main evidence is simply that someone wrote the books, and this was clearly later than the last things they describe. Whether these books were fact or fiction we have to decide on the basis of other evidence, for example from archaeology.

Since there is no convincing archeological or documentary evidence for the existence of characters such as Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the eponymous ancesters of Israel, we all insist that they did not exist as historical characters.This is now the trend in non-conservative Old Testament studies, where analysis and theology do not get mixed up.

So, the Torah had a writer, whose date has to be determined. The reasons across Old Testament scholarship for this date being given as exilic or post-exilic are many and various: datable loan words, the relationship of Deuteronomy to King Josiah, and the editorial hand of the Priestly Writer (P) are all part of this evidence. Especially the archaeological record does not support the details given in the stories. So Sperling starts his discussion with a sixth or fifth century BCE writer, whose purposes have to be ascertained from the text.

He uses the concept of allegory. The Torah stories are seen as reflecting some later event of significance to the writer. Slavery in Egypt is an allegory for the people in Canaan/Palestine being in servitude to Egypt, their overlord, as the archaeological record shows. The covenant is a treaty of alliance, common in the ancient near east: for supporters of Yahweh, it was a means of political control. The Abraham cycle was composed to legitimate King David, the Jacob cycle to legitimate Joroboam and the northern kingdom, 'Israel'. The Aaron traditions legitimated northern temples and festivals (and later Judaean editors damned him for this). Moses, like Saul, was responsible for Yahweh becoming Israel's official God, so the Moses cycle needs to be read also as a legitimation myth. These comments of summary cannot do justice to the detail of the argument, which I take as persuasive. Indeed it has parallels in some current work I am completing and will be discussed in this blog later. That Bible texts are the result of political spin should not surprise us, given the nature of our own political mythologies.















(UK readers looking for these books had best use www.amazon.co.uk).