Israel’s Past Without the Bible

It may come as a surprise to some that there are texts from ancient Israel, Judah, and its environs that are not found in the Bible. There are also a number of texts from (especially) ancient Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia that make reference to Biblical persons, places, and events. Such epigraphic texts are important for many reasons. I want to discuss some aspects of why these texts are important in what follows, and to give some basic information with respect to some of the more prominent epigraphic discoveries that date to the period before Judah’s fall in 586/7 B.C.E. This latter task will be spread out over several posts, and I will proceed in roughly chronological order in my presentation of the material. Continue reading “Israel’s Past Without the Bible”

Mormons and Palestinians: Justice and only Justice

With the tragic recent escalation of conflict in Israel-Palestine, my thoughts have turned to experiences I had while living there, first as a naive undergraduate for a semester abroad at the BYU Jerusalem Center and then later as a visiting graduate student at the Hebrew University. My first experience was eye-opening and really life-changing in terms of providing an impetus to developing a more critical and reflective perspective on religion and my own faith in particular. Through merely a process of cultural osmosis, I had grown up with a traditional Utah Mormon view about the conflict in Israel-Palestine. I believed that the place was at the center of the eschatological drama that would unfold in the end times, that the wars and rumors of wars that had occurred during the last century only presaged more conflict and bloodletting to come, and most importantly, that the establishment of the Jews in Palestine was a fulfillment of prophecy and ordained of God. Before arriving in Jerusalem, I knew next to nothing about Palestinians. They were a dark, amorphous, and indistinct conception in my mind. For the most part I saw Palestinians (often conflating them with terrorists) as the opponents of the state of Israel and therefore in some sense the opponents of prophecy and the divine will.

What I actually found upon experiencing Israel-Palestine in person was disorienting and uncomfortable. Surprisingly, the Israel-Palestine conflict of myth that had been formulated in my mind had almost nothing to do with reality on the ground. I discovered through personal experience that Palestinians were a good and open-hearted people, a people with a rich and vibrant culture, a people who had been at odds with the aims of the state of Israel (some of them violently) but who for the most part wanted to live in peace and justice. On the other hand, I discovered that the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians had discernible political and historical causes. Palestinians were not the stereotyped “bad guys” in a sharply differentiated conflict of cosmic good and evil, but more than anything else victims of a terrible historical tragedy: suffering dispossession from the land of their fathers and mothers at the hands of a Zionist and British project to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine in the first half of the twentieth century and in recent decades experiencing the violent and deadly by-products of a colonizing military occupation.

The experience had a profound impact on my life. In addition to influencing my immediate choice after returning to BYU to pursue a major focused on the study of Arabic and the modern Middle East, I began to think deeply about why LDS culture had views about the conflict and about the state of Israel and Palestinians that seemed to be so disconnected from reality. Why had I been taught to believe that God was essentially on the side of the nation of Israel, that its establishment and continuing maintenance had been effected through divine providence, when it seemed clear that the construction of a Western-backed and ethnically Jewish nation-state in the modern Middle East has had such disastrous consequences for Palestinians, for other peoples of the region, and for Jews and Israelis themselves? Why do Mormons seem to automatically assume that Palestinians are in the wrong and Israel in the right?

I have since realized that LDS attitudes toward Palestinians and the state of Israel are complex and have been shaped by many factors, including ignorance of what life is actually like for Palestinians living under occupation, cultural and political affinity with the Westernized state of Israel, an American media that until recently tended to present the conflict largely from the perspective of Israel (focusing on dramatic Palestinian terrorist acts rather than the daily injustices and violence meted out against Palestinians), participation in the more general historic American/Christian prejudice against Islam and Arabs, and finally, perhaps the most important, a Mormon theological tradition that itself is an adoption of a long-held American Protestant theological interpretation of the Bible that sees Jewish control of Palestine and the state of Israel as the product of God’s will. As I do not have time to explain this latter tradition here, I will try to do so in future posts.

Fortunately, Mormons and the institutional church have gotten somewhat better in recent years in trying to take a more evenhanded approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some Mormons have been more outspoken in standing up for the legitimate rights of Palestinians, while the institutional church and the Jerusalem Center itself have become increasingly sensitive to how ones-sided attitudes have had a detrimental effect on the image of the church and its interests there and elsewhere in the Middle East.

But prejudice and misunderstanding are obviously still a real problem, as reflected in Mitt Romney’s quasi-theological rhetoric about supporting the state of Israel during his recent presidential campaign. When I was living in Israel as a graduate student at Hebrew University during 2006-2007, I would attend church with my family at the Jerusalem Center. On a regular basis I would hear statements from LDS tourists at sacrament meeting I felt very uncomfortable with, statements that were totally oblivious to the lives of real Palestinians in the neighborhoods surrounding the center, statements that referred to Palestinian violence in abstract, decontextualized terms, statements that took comfort in the fulfillment of prophecy in Israel’s blossoming as a rose,  statements whose glowing descriptions of the “Holy Land” seemed so self-absorbed.

In the interest of helping to build bridges between Mormons and Palestinians, I thought I might share a particular experience I had shortly after arriving to live in Jerusalem for the second time. This is taken from an email (mildly edited) sent on November 6, 2006:

Hello Family,

This weekend I had a special experience I would like to share with you all. Since Friday was my day-off from school (like our Saturday in the US) and the Hebrew U. library was closed, I decided to take the opportunity to go exploring near the old city of David. I had learned in my archaeology class that week that the modern old city, the well-known part of Jerusalem surrounded by archaic-looking walls, actually had nothing at all to do with the Biblical city of David. The Jerusalem where ancient Israelites lived from the time of David until well after Ezra (500 years) was in reality located on a hilly spur which climbed 120 meters from the bottom of the Kidron valley to the Ophel south of the temple mount. The area is now inhabited by Palestinian Arabs and is known as the village of Silwan, a densely populated and poverty-stricken neighborhood somewhat isolated from the wealthier west Jerusalem.

My goal was to explore without any specific agenda, to let my feet and heart guide me to what I needed to see and experience. As I climbed down into the Kidron east of the Temple mount and began walking down the wadi, I was, admittedly, somewhat cautious. My Arabic was limited (the colloquial Palestinian dialect is very difficult for me to understand) and tourists had generally avoided this section of Jerusalem since 9-11. But something inside me told me that this was where I needed to go. As I passed through a neighborhood where some people were out harvesting their olive trees, a little boy came up with a big smile and introduced himself in broken English. We conversed and I asked where the spring was. He responded in Arabic with “maim,” or water, and beckoned for me to follow. We walked a short distance to a building, unfortunately locked up, which housed what I knew to be the Gihon spring, the main water source for Bibical Jerusalem and ancient site of the coronations of Israelite kings. I could hear the lapping of the water and feel its coolness behind the metal gates at the bottom of the stairway. When I was about to turn away, my little friend called to a girl peering out of a window three stories above us, who produced a small booklet which fluttered to the pavement below. For 10 shekels, which I gladly paid, I got a helpful guide to the archaeological sites in the area.

I continued on my journey down the Kidron noting various archaeological sites and giving friendly greetings to the people I met. Eventually I came to the intersection of the Kidron and Hinnom valleys and decided to walk up the latter, as I had never explored it before. In the Hinnom, I immediately came upon what seemed to be a large and relatively well-groomed orchard of olive and fig trees, with several people harvesting the olives. I was fascinated with the process and wanted to learn more. One nice old man tried to explain to me what he did with his olives, how much money he made by kilo and its use for making oil for food, but I could hardly understand anything he said. His Arabic was so different from the classical Arabic I had studied at BYU! Discouraged, I left the orchard and began to climb out of the valley with the intention of returning to the old city, but then something told me that I should turn back and try to find someone else to talk to. I felt that I needed to move further out of my comfort zone. When I passed back through the orchard I happened to notice a small family made up of a young boy, girl, and mother on the other side of the road harvesting olives. As I approached, I could immediately sense a mixture of curiosity and slight discomfort. Why was this American interested in them? The woman, presumably their mother, moved behind the tree as if to avoid my presence and the boy and girl stared at me as if I was an alien. Fortunately, just at that moment the father appeared on the hillside above us and welcomed me with a gracious Ahlan wSahlan! (welcome, welcome!). He invited me into the shade and offered me tea, coffee, water, pickled olives, and a delicious fruit I had never seen before. His limited knowledge of English and my Arabic allowed us to converse to a considerable extent. I found out that his name was Omar, that he was a Muslim, had six young children, was poor but better off than many other Palestinians because his family owned the orchard, planted by an ancestor over two hundred years ago. He told me that he had been working in the orchard since four o’clock that morning! When I asked him if life was hard, he said that he was mabsoot (happy), which impressed me greatly. Shortly thereafter, his father came over and joined us. He could speak no English whatsoever and was partially blind, but I found him to be very gracious and hospitable. He called me habibi (a term of endearment) and made me feel like one of the family. Omar told me that his father had worked for years at the local Orthodox Christian church just down the road, which was interesting considering that he was a Muslim.

When they went back to picking olives, I joined them to get firsthand experience. The way it worked was someone (generally the father) would pull the olives off the limbs from above while someone below (generally the women and children) would gather the olives from a tarp spread out to catch them. Most significant to me was the respect that Omar had for his trees. Some people, he said, would beat their trees with a stick to get the olives off, but to him olive and fig trees were sacred, as both were mentioned in the Quran. He showed me how to gently and deftly pull the olives off without harming the tree. Around Omar I couldn’t help but feel that the olive trees were sacred. We moved to several different locations in the orchard, spending probably about an hour at each tree. At lunch break they gave me yogurt, pita bread, tomatoes and cucumbers, food which I knew they had brought for themselves to eat while working in the orchard. I stayed with them picking olives into the late afternoon until Omar invited me to his home to eat dinner. We began to walk up the hill, with him carrying a large bag of olives, when suddenly he tripped and fell down. It gave me the opportunity to carry the heavy bag (almost too heavy for me!) to the top of the hill until he could take over.

His house was tucked back in a neighborhood that was reached by stairs that Dr. Seuss would be proud of. We sat down on his porch and soon children from neighboring houses began to gather to see the strange visitor. Everyone was so friendly and interested that even I was surprised. I played soccer with the boys who thought I was quite the soccer star. Dinner was served, a rice dish wrapped in grape leaves and chicken, spicy but very good. After dinner I leafed through a Quran and one of the boys recited some of its suras (chapters). I can’t begin tell you how welcome I felt, how simple but happy a family they were, how beautiful their children were, how their values and way of life so closely matched what I feel to be our family-centered Mormon way of life. When I left, Omar invited me to come back again and made me feel like I had known him longer than one short day. As I walked back to the old city I felt inwardly gratified that my little attempt to show interest in a Palestinian family had been rewarded tenfold. I had gone hoping to share something of myself, to build bridges between different cultures, but it was I who had been inspired, humbled, and had received.

 

 

 

 

Faith, Scholarship, and Teaching at BYU Series

For the series announcement and the question to which I am replying, see here.

I believe that the dichotomy between the “intellectual” and the “spiritual” in religious education is a false one. Instead, I would prefer to appropriate for my approach to this important issue the German adjective geistlich (or Hebrew ruchi): a word that sees the spiritual and the intellectual as part of a synthetic whole that also includes an appreciation for the aesthetic. I believe that by adopting this perspective one may more fully comprehend, and so more successfully fulfill, the scriptural injunction to seek God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind (Mark 12:30). Moreover, this approach attempts to eliminate the dualistic impulse that tries to separate the spirit from the material, an impulse which I believe Mormonism confronts and rejects (D&C 88:15; 131:7).

Of course, one could easily recall numerous Mormon axioms for the importance of the life of the mind, including, “The glory of is intelligence” (D&C 93:36), and the divine command to obtain out of the “best books words of wisdom” and to “seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118; cf. D&C 90:15; 109:7, 14). But I believe that perhaps the best argument from a Mormon perspective for the organic integration of what is sometimes artificially conceptualized as a division between the “mind/intellect” and the “spirit/soul” is the Prophet Joseph Smith himself. Here Mormons have an authoritative religious example who valued and who aspired to combine truths of personal experience, divine revelation, and academic study. He was brave enough to question and to study things out in his mind (cf. D&C 9:8), while also being humble enough to seek out answers from both God and the collective wisdom and learning of other peoples, faiths, and traditions. He truly was an example of learning “by study and also by faith,” someone who fully believed that Mormonism could bravely accept all truth, whatever its source.

Although requiring methodological rigor and pedagogical sensitivity, I genuinely believe that Mormonism has nothing to fear in studying or honestly teaching the methods and results of modern academic disciplines. Indeed, I maintain that such geistliche Studien in fact are a divine obligation that will only enrich an already wealthy tradition that I deeply love and cherish. And, finally, I believe that such engagement is crucial if Mormonism wishes to retain and nourish its rising generations in this ever-increasingly globalized world, and also if it wishes to make an even greater contribution in the next century to that broader world it is called to serve.

TYD

Faith-Promoting [Not] History

Several weeks ago we had a sacrament meeting talk that remains on my mind. The gentleman who concluded the meeting used most of his time to read a story that he frankly admitted came from his mother, who “got it from Google.” If you are thinking that the word “Google” is a bad sign in this context, your spidey sense is doing well.

The narrative he read was the highly embellished story of Gertrude Specht. You can read the Google version here and Jonathan Green’s research here. The bottom line is that the reality and the internet myth share only three points of contact: both talk about a German, both talk about a woman, and both indicate that the woman had at least one doctorate. Otherwise, the story appears to be what we will charitably call a fabrication in order to avoid offending any tender sensibilities with scatological references.

I must admit that I find it disturbing to hear this sort of thing in church – you want to think that what you hear in church can genuinely be called “worship.” But I must report that the irony runs even deeper. For the major emphasis behind the fabrication was an effort to make poor Dr. Specht, a housewife with a dissy in economics, into an expert who could affirm in detail the historicity of the complex of ideas we group under the term “Great Apostasy.” Yes indeedy, it was an unhistorical narrative contrived to lend the highest scholarly authority to the historicity of the LDS version of early Christianity.

 

Continue reading “Faith-Promoting [Not] History”

The Gender of “Church” in the BoM

I still have a “church” itch as the idea is found in the BoM. So below, in no particular order, are some observations and thoughts as they stand now:

Gendered imagery in the Bible illustrating the relationship between God (or Christ) and his people, represented by Israel, Jerusalem or the Church, is pretty common. In Revelation alone, there are multiple striking images such as the Cosmic Woman of Revelation 12, the Whore of Babylon (Revelation 17) or the “Bride, the wife of the Lamb” in Revelation 21.

The BoM is different. The GA Church is female, but of the naughty type and highly disfavored for it. Instead, the church/people of God is/are defined by what they think, that is, they share a set of beliefs with God. It’s a rational rather than an emotional relationship; right now it seems like two guys who’ve decided to hang out together. God is the dominant partner.

Continue reading “The Gender of “Church” in the BoM”

Evil Eschatological Mothers

Heh. Back to work, are you? And not really in the mood, perhaps? Yeah. It coulda been Normandy outside last night until quite late. Anyway, here’s a little something to muse on as you ease yourself back into productive behaviors.

I think that perhaps the great and abominable church of 1 Nephi 13-14 is the whore of Babylon (Revelation 17), mostly stripped of sexuality and gender. If this is a reasonable reading, it means that the BoM re-visions the great struggle of the end times as a church-church fight rather than the church-state conflict that plays out in Revelation.

Continue reading “Evil Eschatological Mothers”

Mormons and Wild Geese

The first line of Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” seems as at odds with Mormonism as anything can be. “You do not have to be good,” she states.

What’s that? It sounds an awfully lot like sacrilege. Of course we have to be good. Jesus admonished us to become perfect, and not only do we have the 10 commandments of other Bible-believers, we have a strict health code, a tithing requirement, and obligatory church attendance. A Latter-day Saint’s entire identity can be wrapped up in the necessity of being good. From choosing baptism and choosing the right in Primary, to serving a mission and serving our fellow man as a young adult, to marrying the right person at the right time in the right place — doing good is in our genes, and necessary for our salvation. Continue reading “Mormons and Wild Geese”

On Biblical Scripture

The Problem

What makes Biblical Scripture, Scripture for LDS Christians?*

Historically one prominent model for the authority of Biblical Scripture in Christian history (including for some Latter-day Saint thinkers) is the Prophetic-Inspiration Model: the person who writes the text is divinely inspired by God to write the very words that are recorded.  This model entails that the human being is a puppet of sorts for the divine will, a tool that can be used for the divine purpose, namely composing Sacred Scripture.  In this view, any text so authored is worthy of the category Scripture because, in the end, its wording is really determined by God (even while still partaking in human language).  This model therefore equates the words of the prophet figure with Revelation. However, although the prophet figure ultimately cannot be held responsible for the final text, the fact that it is composed, even if only instrumentally, by a prominent religious leader otherwise considered to have been commissioned of God, gives credence to the view that the text’s authority rests in the divine. Continue reading “On Biblical Scripture”

The Flood: Global or Localized?

I would argue neither.

With the rising tide of modern science, historical criticism, and other scholarly disciplines, those committed to a strict literalist interpretation of the Flood stories in Gen 6-9 have had to retreat farther and farther up the metaphorical beach in order to maintain their belief in the historical reality of the Biblical tale.  For instance, basic problems with a literal reading of the narrative include the fact that there is no geological evidence for a global flood, and that the Biblical Flood narrative in large part is derivative of an older Mesopotamian Flood story from the myth Atrahasis (among many other reasons).  Sometimes, though, more liberal readers of the text suggest that the Flood was a historical event but that it was localized in a specific area, and that from the shortsighted view of the ancient author the whole land (including the mountains) indeed was covered with water. Thus we shouldn’t expect there to be evidence in the geological record for a global flood. However, there is, in my view, a more adequate understanding of the text, one that takes it on its own terms.

Israelite cosmology as it is reflected in the Bible basically consisted of a three-tiered world with the heavens/sky above, the earth below the sky, and the waters below the earth.  In the heavens (which, for some authors, had multiple levels) the gods resided, while humans lived on the earth. Moreover, Israelites believed that there was water above the earth, presumably because the sky, like the sea, is blue and, moreover, rain would often come down from the sky. In this pre-scientific worldview there was a solid, clear (perhaps ice or crystal?) dome-like structure that prevented the waters above the earth from crashing down onto the earth. This material object is translated as “firmament” in the KJV in Gen 1. The so-called “windows” of heaven were, in their view, sluices cut into the dome through which YHWH would send down rain according to his providence.  The sun and the stars were underneath this solid dome.  Furthermore, pillars were sunk into the subterranean waters to support the earth, and below the earth was also She’ol, the underworld.  Mountains, on the other hand, were thought by some to support the dome.  For more visual readers, see HERE for a basic representation of this cosmological worldview.

Gen 1 describes creation as a divine process of organizing the world from the chaotic primeval waters by separating different elements so as to provide order.  The Israelite God separates the waters using the dome in order to create the sky and then, within this “bubble,” proceeds to organize the rest of the world through separation and demarcation.  Just as, on the social level, God separated the Israelites from the other nations and gave them his covenant and its attendant laws in order to organize their lives and provide them with well-being, so too, on the cosmological level, proceeded the creation of the world.  The formation of the world, in a sense, mirrored the creation of Israel, and vice versa.

Thus it would seem somewhat unfair either to criticize or to validate – on scientific grounds – the author(s) of the Flood stories by measuring their texts against the ruler of modern scientific cosmology.  The Flood stories do not comment upon whether the Flood was local or global in scientific terms; indeed, their view was pre-scientific.  Rather, for the Israelites who authored these stories the Flood primarily represents “uncreation”: that is, the disorder and chaos that existed before God’s mastery over creation brought order. When sin filled the world the God of Israel unleashed the subterranean and heavenly waters to fill the bubble. So too if Israel transgressed its covenant and failed to keep the laws of YHWH their society would fall into chaos and ruin.

Pharisees, Scribes, and Modern Disciples

In TYD’s post below, “A Prophet is Only a Prophet When…,” one of the commenters, identified as Jeremiah Rush, left the following thoughts:

If the Jesus as described in the new testament existed today, he would assert the mormons (and most of christianity) are like unto the ‘pharisees, scribes, and hypocrits.’ Monson as a “prophet?” A penthouse on temple square, wool suits (a wolf in sheep’s clothing), driving around in limos, having his picture in millions of people’s homes, etc–certainly not like Jesus. It all reminds me of this: ‘Those who love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues (or chapel, or conference center)’ and further, ‘ they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’ The mormon leadership are a bunch of geriatric, brainwashed and brainwashing men. If he is a prophet, then I’m a f@#$%*&% saint 😉 But of course you will now say, ‘he is fallen, and hath a devil.’

This interests me because it has some elements of what is an enduring appraisal of Christian leadership: that the leaders in whatever is the current age do not conduct themselves as did Jesus or the original disciples. And in fact, many books and articles have been written exploring precisely this point, and suggesting precisely what Mr. Rush suggests: Christ would disown or be disowned by Christianity.

What I wonder is this: Under what circumstances is this a legitimate evaluation?

Continue reading “Pharisees, Scribes, and Modern Disciples”