Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Vort: Replacing the Old Laws

If I were to sum of Christianity (from a religious Jewish perspective) it might go something like this: Christianity is a religion where the actual laws of Judaism were considered too difficult, so they decided to institute a new set of laws that removed all the difficult laws and replaced them with extremely simple requirements of belief that anyone could follow. And how do we know that this is what God wants? Well, according to the Christians we just have to trust Jesus and his disciples. The Jews of course saw through this ruse, but the goyim didn't, and many converted to the "simple" religion that promised large rewards for no hard work.

That view is of course a bit slanted, but there is some truth here. Christianity did abrogate the old laws, which they termed the "Old Testament" and replaced them with a new set, the "New Testament." The "New Testament" did focus more on belief rather than religious precepts like dietary laws, sacrifices, circumcision and the like. The religious spin comes in when describing the motivation for the switch. Perhaps the founders of Christianity, mainly Paul, thought that the old laws were actually "bad laws" and should be replaced. They hampered the approach to God rather than enabling it. Christians say that the replacement came directly from God through Jesus, but Jews scoff at this explanation. God doesn't change his laws. Why would he ever do that?

This week we'll see where at least one prophet accuses God of giving bad laws in the past and attempts to rectify them, an idea that seems pretty "Christian."

Before we get there, I'll note that Judaism itself does try to soften or excise "bad laws". One example of this is the "eye for an eye" which was completely neutered in Talmudic times. Other examples were all the commands for capital punishment which were also essentially removed by the Rabbis, who then claimed they had never been in effect in the first place. But we're not talking about this kind of change in the laws, we're going to talk about something more direct.

Yehezkel's "Bad Laws"

The prophet is Yehezkel (Ezekiel) and the versed in question are Ezek. 20:24-25. Here they are in Hebrew:
כד יַעַן מִשְׁפָּטַי לֹא-עָשׂוּ, וְחֻקּוֹתַי מָאָסוּ, וְאֶת-שַׁבְּתוֹתַי, חִלֵּלוּ; וְאַחֲרֵי גִּלּוּלֵי אֲבוֹתָם, הָיוּ עֵינֵיהֶם.  כה וְגַם-אֲנִי נָתַתִּי לָהֶם, חֻקִּים לֹא טוֹבִים; וּמִשְׁפָּטִים--לֹא יִחְיוּ, בָּהֶם.
 And here's my translation:
24: Because they did not do my judgments, and disdained by laws, and profaned by Sabbaths, and their eyes were directed towards the idols of their fathers. 25: And then I gave them bad laws, and judgments that they would not live by.
A lot of the scholarly discussion regarding this verse comes with the context of the verses after, which seem to imply that one of the "bad laws" that Yehezkel is referring to is child sacrifice. But this is not the topic I wish to discuss. (If you're interested in this topic, you can see this series of blog posts 1, 2, 3, where the second and third link deal entirely with this section of Yehezkel)

Instead, I merely want to draw attention to the pretty monumental claim that Yehezkel is making. He is basically saying that there were some laws, given directly by God, that are bad and that people should not do. And he gave these laws as a sort of punishment. Presumably he's coming to tell you what the good laws are and what the bad laws are.

Of course, as a person listening to Yehezkel, why should you believe him? After all, the old laws, those "bad" ones were given by God himself, and who is he to contradict God? But more importantly, we see an idea wherein Yehezkel's concept of Judaism is very different from the concept today. Yehezkel obviously does not believe in a static set of laws that are in effect for all time, and he's actively seeking to abrogate some of the old laws he doesn't like. Instead of using the same approach of Christianity or the Talmudic Rabbis, that the old laws are outdated, he actually says that God gave the old "bad" laws as a form of punishment for disobedience. It's actually a pretty crazy idea if you think about it. It's a level of malevolence that most people would not ascribe to God.

When you read through the book of Yehezkel, you find that he has a very different idea of how Judaism's laws came about. In some places he directly contradicts the Torah story about when laws were given, and like every other prophet, he makes absolutely no mention of the revelation at Har Sinai. Here it seems, that he thinks the laws are a bit more fluid, and that we should actively get rid of "bad laws" and replace them with good ones. How exactly we should know what is bad and what is good? Well we just need to trust Yehezkel.  

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

God's Coconspirators

The last post described a single verse in the Torah in which I offered an interpretation where, Asherah, the consort of God, appears at his right side. This week we'll look at three other places in the Tanach where there appears to be other divine beings, who are either at the same level or slightly subservient to God. One example is known by everyone, one is known by all religious Jews, and one I would never have ever discovered without academic insights.

What Shall We Do?

One of the more bizarre but well known stories in the Torah is that of Migdal Bavel (The Tower of Babel). Along with the general strangeness of the story itself, there is some weird descriptions of God's actions which are almost entirely confined to this one brief narrative. Specifically, God appears to talk to other being to discuss the actions. Specifically Gen 11:7 says:
Come, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.'
This language is obviously meant to mimic the speech of the people previously (Gen 11:3-4):
 3 And they said one to another: 'Come, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly.' And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. 4 And they said: 'Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.' 
But still one wonders who exactly is God talking to? Tradition offers several answers, which are actually plausible in my view because of the strangeness of this particular story. Nevertheless, one can maintain the possibility that God is speaking to other divine beings who may or may not have agreed with this course of action.

Edit: zdub rightly points out in the comment that there is another salient example of the plural "we" which appears near the creation of man. Gen 1:26 reads:
And God said: 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.'

The Divine Council

One of the traditional options for "who is God talking to" in the Migdal Bavel story is that he's talking to a "divine council." In traditional Judaism, this council is made up of entirely subservient beings, angels and the like. The actions of the council are merely a formality. However, perhaps at a point in time this type of council meant something different, with God acting more or less as one of the group of equals. We previously saw one instance that hinted at this type of arrangement, but there might even be a better example. We turn to Psalm 82. Verses 1 and 6 are specifically salient. Here is verse 1 in Hebrew:
אֱלֹהִים, נִצָּב בַּעֲדַת-אֵל; בְּקֶרֶב אֱלֹהִים יִשְׁפֹּט.
And my translation:
Elohim stands in the council of El, in the midst of the gods he delivers a judgment.
The translation is complicated because of the two different uses of the word Elohim, the first instance is coupled with a singular noun, so it's clearly meant to mean God. The second use doesn't make much sense to translate it the same way, so I use it to refer to other gods. Traditional Judaism would translate this as "angels" or something similar. The next four verses describe the various things that God is judging, specifically for this psalm, God appears to be angry at the other gods for allowing various social ills. Then we get to verse 6-7, where God appears to call out the other members of the divine council. Again here they are in Hebrew first:
ו אֲנִי-אָמַרְתִּי, אֱלֹהִים אַתֶּם; וּבְנֵי עֶלְיוֹן כֻּלְּכֶם.ז אָכֵן, כְּאָדָם תְּמוּתוּן; וּכְאַחַד הַשָּׂרִים תִּפֹּלוּ.
and here is my translation:
 I (God) said you are gods, all of you are the sons of Elyon. But you will die like a man, like one of the (mortal) rulers, you will fall.
After accusing the rest of the Gods for not behaving properly towards the oppressed, he specifically calls out the other gods, and mentions that they are also children of Elyon. And then he pronounces his judgment on them, that those gods will all die and lose their spheres of command. The verse ends with the psalm author encourage Elohim (God) to arise and make his judgment.

Before we go on, we'll note that this Psalm uses the uncommon form of God's name, Elyon. This name of God always seems to pop up in places where it seems to imply some deity other than the God of the Hebrews, someone higher up, older, possibly even aloof. We've seen two other instances of this in the blog of this, which I'll link here and here.

Lesser Gods

One of the common themes of academic study versus religious study is that academic study puts a lot more emphasis on the writing of the Nevi'im (prophets) than traditional Judaism. And for this third example, we'll look at the relatively obscure prophet Habakuk. This prophet is pretty much at the bottom of the pile of obscure biblical prophets. He doesn't describe anything about who he is, where he's from, when he's writing etc. The name could just as well be a pseudonym; it doesn't appear to have any clear meaning, and isn't a well known name in any prior period.

We can put together some information about Habakuk. He writes about the Chaldeans, so that implies that he's writing in the late 9th century or later, which is the earliest that anyone would be referencing them. Another piece of information is that the chapters do seem structured so that it appears to be the work of a single individual. The book isn't very long (only three chapters) so this isn't surprising, but some short books even have multiple author hypotheses.  These don't tell us very much, but it's at least something.

Anyway, let's get to the verse in question. It appears in the third chapter. First we look at Hab 3:3
God cometh from Teman, and the Holy One from mount Paran. Selah His glory covereth the heavens, and the earth is full of His praise.
If you read the previous post, this kind of idea should look familiar to you. God is arriving from locations in the south. God is here referred to by the Hebrew Eloha, a somewhat rare form, although in the previous verse, you have the more common tetragrammaton. Verse 5 though is the interesting one. Here it is in Hebrew:
לְפָנָיו, יֵלֶךְ דָּבֶר; וְיֵצֵא רֶשֶׁף, לְרַגְלָיו
If you look at traditional translations for this verse, you'll get something like the JPS translation:
Before him goeth the pestilence (dever), and fiery bolts (reshef) go forth at His feet.
The word dever translated as pestilence is not obscure, it is the same verse used for the cattle plague in Egypt. Reshef is considerably more obscure. It is often translated as some kind of fever, although here it is translated as "fiery bolts." However, the insight here is that both dever and reshef are actually the names of other deities. Dever is a bit obscure, but Reshef is not. From tablets of Ebla, we learn about various deities, this includes Dever but more specifically we learn that Reshef was the patron saint of Shechem an important city of the northern kingdom of Israel.

So we have something very similar to the verse in Deuteronomy from last week, although this time instead of God having along with him his consort Asherah, possibly included by her devotees, here God has in tow the patron deity of the northern city in a clearly subservient role.

Reinforcing the Polytheistic Roots

This post is just one in many ideas that support the hypothesis that Judaism started out as polytheistic and then gradually moved to a religion where their God was the chief god and the only one worth worshipping, until finally ending up in the theological ideas we know today where God is the only god, period. In this last stage those roles previously filled by other gods were now filled by subservient angels and messengers, as well as natural processes without their own agency.