Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Does Ezra have music and other miscellany?

Here is a fine article on Matthew and the fulfillment motif - very fine - anticipate Christmas with it - but read it all.

I have already facebooked (verbed that noun) a speech by Solzhenitsyn and a comment on his nationalism - a nice combo if you are worried about humanity. But more comment is required on the potential for a difference to be discovered in the one who is the Vine. Better is not my favorite word.

And here is Ezra 1 - hmmm what will one do with the default mode?

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Monday, September 8, 2014

Stephen Hawking on PBS

Diana and I were captivated by the PBS show on Stephen Hawking. It is astonishing what the team around him was able to support during the last 40 years. It is a beautifully tender film.

The technology, the nursing support, the support of his students in the face of such a debilitating disease is for me a testament to the presence of God in the community of his supporters. For my money, even spontaneous creation is not an argument for non-existence.

That Jonah can point to the one who creates the sea and the dry land, and the psalms to the one who creates the heavens and the earth is as good an argument for presence. Let's take our responsibilities seriously and not squander our lives on falsity.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Blogging History, motivation and meaning

Although this is a top 50 , even a top 20 Biblioblog, I do not have a lot of activity. I have had in the past 8 years about 210,000 page views on just over 2500 posts. You might think I need my head examined.

What is your motivation, Bob?

You know, I mean, well, shucks, um, yeah/no, it's hard to say.

After all, you might say, you're not a liberal theologian, you're not a scholar, you're not even a card-carrying evangelical. You don't believe a whole lot of nonsense that North Americans argue over incessantly. No posts on males and females, very few on same-sex relations at least in the last 10 years, nothing on evolution or un intelligent design, I mean on ..., but a few on stupid design decisions.

Do you even think about these things?

Yes I do. It's true I am not trained in theology, but there is almost no post that does not point to a theological issue: like responsibility, prayer, maturity, care for the other, and so on. And there is no post where I have not dug the words out of deep recesses, treasure old and new.

I am prejudiced too. (I have two sons who are not Caucasian, so I don't mean racially prejudiced.) I am prejudiced towards, ... what shall I say? - not equal, because things are not equal, but rather in favour of forms of judgment and justice that enable growth in others, whatever form that judgment must take.

What I see in the sexual and gender related discussions in the blogosphere is anger and fear. What I see in the young earth creationists is fear and ignorance. If I meet one, I can sometimes find words to undermine the fear and soothe the anger and stimulate the question-mechanism that any individual has. But I admit this is difficult, especially with (some) old and encrusted rationalizations that one finds in the older folks who grew up in differing times.

Of course I am talking about those who are open to some aspect of listening. There are many who have too much vested interest in their own self-image and for whom some questions would collapse the structure of their lives. At times one gives up for a while, and perhaps the opportunity arises again. I do have my own struggles too - a lot of lesions, crunched fenders, and the odd loose nut or bolt in my conditioning. But this old model car is still putting along.

You are, I think, a person of faith. How do you manage with your relations?

My relations? All my relations: cousins, siblings, children, parishioners, university, medical folks, fellow patients, and all the suppliers of goods and services I am dependent on - there's a long list.

In many ways we live in an age of unbelief, but I could divide even the believers, the 'parishioners' into a hundred types, scholars, administrators, lovers, singers, clergy active and retired, teachers, authors, and so on. Each face presents a different question.

They asked me this question at the university in the company of scholars. But they, the questioners, had some very strange ideas about what they thought I believed, as if repeated words are some sort of magic. If I find a psalm that uses 9 words and I find that the next psalm uses the same 9 words in reverse sequence, I am not in the presence of magic, I am in the presence of the mind that wrote the second psalm based on a study of the first or vice versa. And I am in the presence of someone who loved that primary poem.

Love. The entire Torah is summed up in that one word. That relates to family and responsibility, to hope, even if only temporal, to shared history, and unshared history (family always has a few surprises), to inheritance, or to more distant now independent sibling and cousin relations. The shared history always gives rise to a willingness to talk, write, and express some aspect of what is up. So we have written our online newsletters that speak volumes of untold story. One of my old school friends found me through these old writings - it was cool to make contact again after 50 years.

Perhaps then that's my motivation - a reaching out to unknown folks, now some of them known around the world. It's good. That seems a sufficient reason.

Do you then, believe in God? Or is it humanity that holds your hope?

One thing I have noticed in my recent book reviews. The reality of the writer behind the book shows through much like the questions on the face of each parishioner. But they, books or people, are really hard to read, these individual realities. Not many of them talk to me. Perhaps I put them off. Some few I think I encourage, and some few encourage me. In the hospital, I met a man who was encouraged by my study and my questions. Both of us were in some state of anxiety so the psalms were a good conversation piece. Perhaps I can ask no more of humanity.

I fear more than I hope for humanity. There is an aching void in the violence and ignorance and it's a void that can be filled with horror. There is a randomness that I fear also. Yet sometimes there is joy in the random encounters. Perhaps that too is a rationale for blogging, for writing 2500+ essays and snippets.

But yes, with respect to God let me close with Purcell's Funeral Music for Queen Anne. Don't miss the horns at the end. Only Purcell can turn an augmented major third into such unbearable lightness.

And here's an embedded shorter piece from the same funeral.
Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts;
shut not thy merciful ears unto our pray'rs;
but spare us, Lord most holy, O God most mighty.
O holy and most merciful Saviour, thou most worthy Judge eternal,
suffer us not, at our last hour, for any pains of death, to fall from thee. Amen.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Reviews and Books - the Popular and the Useful

Sometimes you are sitting on a rough-cut gem and not really making use of it. Sometimes a glass diamond glitters and you are captivated but the impact is short-lived. Sometimes you hold a rock which may be polished to a shine but does not reveal any depth.

From an old school copy of essays by Francis Bacon, I remember this advice:
Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.
There are many books but there is one you. There are many distractions but there is One who loves you and who wants to build you into the likeness of the Eternal. There are many others like you and like me who form this building, a temple suitable for the indwelling Spirit of the Most High.

It is not a simple thing to build this building. The One who teaches humanity knowledge is the One who builds and who knows the cost. The cost is in the cup of salvation, a cup prepared for the wicked to drink to the dregs (Psalm 75:9):
for there is a cup in the hand of YHWH
and the wine is red
full of mixture
and he spills from it
surely they will suck the dregs
all the wicked of the earth will imbibe

and yet it is drunk by the elect instead (Psalm 116:13):
the cup of salvation I will bear
so in the name of YHWH I will call

This word cup is the same as the word for owl, used in the prayer of Psalm 102:7
I am like an unclean bird of the wilderness
I have become like an owl of the desert

Here the cup is an image of the body, as in Psalm 23:5, where my cup is saturated.

The pointer forward to Jesus and his use of the image of cup is very clear - can you drink of the cup that I must drink? If we are to be a cup fit for the master's use, then should we not chew and digest our instruction, the same instruction from which Jesus learned his own calling?  There is no better way to do this than by meditation on the Psalms and the use of the imagery of these poems in both the New and Old Testaments.

This is the work of my book Seeing the Psalter. I use it myself to consider my own calling. I wrote it so that I could learn Hebrew poetry as fully as possible and it is serving me well on a daily basis. This useful book has now been reviewed by Professor Susan Gillingham of the University of Oxford for the Society for Old Testament Studies. The review is short but very encouraging. She calls it an "unusual commentary on the Psalms, in part technological, in part aesthetic, in part hermeneutical".

Yes - it is unusual. It is meant for growth for me and for the reader (that's the hermeneutical part). It does not waste time on distractions. She ends her review with these words for which I am deeply grateful:  "Overall this is an ambitious and intriguing project, but is still very much work in progress: interested readers should look at MacDonald’s website at"

I concur with her comment that the book is a work in progress. It is like a huge canvas, impossible to finish. The Psalms are part of the infrastructure of the temple. A commentary is, like me and like you, a work in progress. But God forbid we should fail to progress towards the full scope of the image of power and love and a sound mind that we are called into and that is prepared for us.

[Susan's review is available online through Sage Publications, but hold your clicks. It is behind a pay wall. Sage offers a one month free access once a year. When it becomes available I will note it. I am pleased indeed that the review directly references my presentation at the Open University in London last year. It is a good summary of my intent. I will make sure this address does not get deleted any time soon. The summary is in no way a substitute for pondering the Psalms!]

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Religion without God (4)

Continuing the previous posts on Religion without God, a very short book (30,000 words or so) by the late philosopher and legal expert, Ronald Dworkin.

Dworkin (p.24) divides religious values into godly convictions, worship, prayer, and obedience, and the value of ethical responsibility. He rejects the first three and accepts the last as a value shared with many who do not necessarily believe in God.  It seems to me that obedience and ethics might well overlap, but he doesn't make the connection. Worship and obedience do not appear in his index. Prayer only appears under the entry "prayer in public schools". In the third entry on this subject, he notes the US compromise of a moment of silence that allows for prayer or meditation, or just resting the eyes.

Worship would focus the dispute if he had addressed it. Perhaps he makes a stab with his appeals to truth and beauty from Keats Ode on a Grecian Urn, but neither the calling out of beauty with a loud voice (A Room with a View) not the engraved for ever panting and for ever young quite does the full job of suggesting a conscious and mature worship. And the brief mentions of Otto and Tillich on the numinous are likewise not satisfying, since many do not come to worship in such a state.

The most moving courses I ever took in school were on special relativity. Time dilation has gripped my soul ever since those heady for ever days. No one can convince me that eternal and everlasting are for ever in a linear sense. Even the universe as we see it in scientific theory has beginning and end. And the ancients also knew that whatever release there was from our troubled lives was for ever in a sense that is different from a linear model of time. So Revelation speaks of the Lamb slain from before the foundation of the world. And Jewish tradition knows of the primal 'existence' of Torah.

Redemption is thus embedded in creation. (Psalm 75) Who can pay for our damage? (Psalm 49) How can we be forgiven? (Psalm 103) Time as a straight line is quite boring.

Dworkin approaches the beauty of science quite well in his chapter 2 on the universe. Yet even such awe, bordering on the numinous, does not come to the full recognition of that which is worthy of worship. Psalm 19 as I have noted before makes a direct connection between creation and Torah and the human problem of sin. The full recognition of worship is embedded in the story that is in the Psalms. For example, note Psalm 22, known for its famous verse 1: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me. In verse 23, the forsaken one announces your name to my kin. Then in verse 28, the poet proclaims:

All the ends of the earth will remember and will turn to יהוה [the name, YHWH]
All the families of the nations will worship in your presence

Verse 30 then notes:

All the sleek of the earth will eat and worship in his presence
All who go down to dust will bow

The parallel would suggest that it should read all who sleep in the earth. In Seeing the Psalter, I have translated the error into a single character slip in English from a single character adjustment in the Hebrew. Translation really can be fun. [(p. 81) sleek, דשׁן (dshn) fat, feels like a misprint for sleep, ישׁן]. Mind you sleek works too for it shows that the fat are economically exploiting the afflicted (verse 27).

The afflicted will eat and be satisfied
Those who search for יהוה will praise him
May your heart live for ever

Worship is associated with eating and being satisfied. It does not require a religious experience of the numinous. I say this for the majority who do not find such experience. Neither does it preclude the numinous. But justice with equity, and satisfaction, is the key to worship. If nations or tribes or nature or even the universe could bring about justice then patriotism, tribalism and sun worship would be justified. But they can't bring about justice, nor can vague appeals to beauty be satisfactory in themselves.

There's a lot more about worship in the psalms. They end, as is well known, with the great noise of Psalm 150 where all those who are engaged in the birthing of the universe breathe their thanksgiving. It is a remarkable collection of poems.

I have 16 references to the topic of worship in the psalms in my topical index. Read them - in fact, if you have enjoyed this series, read them in my translation with my comprehensive 55 page Hebrew-English and English-Hebrew glossary (471-526) and 7 part index where the wholeness of this poetry can be experienced. I did not shortchange you. The index alone was the work of several months. Software helps but completeness is a manual thing.

If you live in Victoria, you can order the book from me - in fact I have a few on hand. You will not be disappointed in 'the One' who is portrayed in the story and 'who teaches humanity knowledge'. (Kimhi). If you live far away, please order through Energion Direct. At 526 pages you will have plenty to occupy your capacity for poetry.

Now I am done with Dworkin. There is neither satisfaction nor completeness in Religion without God. There is no salvation either. אין ישועה בדת בלי אלוהים

Worship is most effectively expressed with praise and thanksgiving. So among many examples in the Psalms:

I will thank you for you have answered me
and you are my salvation

(Psalm 118:21)

The Bible's Cutting Room Floor by Joel Hoffman

"Perhaps surprisingly, their first question wasn't how to survive. It was why they had to survive. Or, more precisely, why no one was taking care of that for them."
So begins Joel Hoffman as story teller, page 171 of his new book: The Bible's Cutting Room Floor. I am grateful to St Martin's Press for sending me a pre-publication copy of this book. It has been a pleasure to have my attention drawn to this subject.

Cutting room floor is a modern expression first used in 1708 for the stone cutters, and only recently used in the context of editing of documents - but mostly of film. Here is a little of what the Oxford English Dictionary gives us: "(a) a room where the cutting of clothing materials, meat, etc. is done; (b) a room where surgical operations are performed; (c) a room where a film is cut or edited" (this is a cinematographic use of cut as in 'cut to scene 3').

Is the cutting room floor an apt metaphor for the editing of the Bible? Does it suggest a set of collectors, authors, editors, readers and critics preparing a volume for publication and accepting or rejecting the contents of the Festschrift for God? Or was God making a film? Applying this metaphor to the Bible leads me wondering about the means by which written texts were collected, used, stored, and modified. Why is there such a thing as a canon of Scripture? Without raising these questions explicitly, the book nonetheless addresses many issues that can arise from considering an ancient text that is called 'Holy'.

We are not talking modern editing or selection, and we are certainly not talking about surgical operations or film or butchery of meat. But clothing is apt, the Bible being a habit, as it were, and clothing a significant metaphor in the canon for both God and humanity. In the Psalms alone, the metaphor is applied to nature, hills clothed with flocks, to YHWH, pride clothed, and clothed with splendour and honour, even with the abyss. The garment will fade but the clothing is also renewed. See Psalms 22:19, 35:13, 26, 45:14, 65:14, 69:12, 93:1, 1, 102:27, 104:1, 6, 109:18, 29, 132:9, 16, 18.

But my thoughts are tangential to Joel's stated intent for the book: to start "in ancient Jerusalem" and venture "through a wide variety of texts", to bring us "back to modernity with a renewed appreciation for the Bible ... and a better understanding of some of the forces that were most influential in shaping Western society ..." (page 10). To do this, he focuses on a few of the stories that were somewhat contemporaneous with but were left out of the canon. This negative focus produces a book that tells stories we may not have heard of from their own point of view, yet addressing issues that may be compared with the treatment of the subject matter in the generally accepted canon of the Bible.

Joel deals with three main collections: The Dead Sea Scrolls (chapter 2), the Septuagint (chapter 3), and Josephus (chapter 4). These are a matter of record and he reports on them, introducing and telling the story behind each one. Then he has three chapters on specific examples of elaborations that are not in the Bible: The Life of Adam and Eve, (chapter 5) otherwise known as the apocalypse of Moses, Abraham's story from the apocalypse of Abraham (chapter 6), and 1 Enoch (chapter 7), so named for the one who 'walked with God'.

Enoch, with its imaginative historical visions, provides a clever back portion of the envelope for the book. The front portion of the envelope is Joel's summary of the 1000 year history of Jerusalem (chapter 1) in relationship to all the cultures of the ancient world, taken one at a time. Beginning with the siege of Jerusalem by Pompey in 63 BCE, he traces how this confrontation was prepared from David to the Maccabees, showing Jerusalem in conflict with Babylon, Persia, Greece, Syria, the influence of Lydia via the origins of banking, and Carthage through Hannibal's influence on Antiochus III. The back portion of the envelope (chapter 7) traces Enoch's vision of the animals as identified with many of the same historical cities and their rulers in conflict with Jerusalem.

This is a useful if brief history and will be helpful to readers who are unfamiliar with it or who have remembered isolated history lessons from their school days about Carchemish, Marathon, and the Punic wars, but have not seen them integrated into a single narrative focused around Jerusalem. One should not doubt that a reader of the Bible needs this extra-Biblical context in order to understand several of the Biblical words and stories. No language or story emerges fully formed without its meaning being enmeshed and, at least in part, defined by the surrounding culture.

Textual variations between versions of stories from the Septuagint, the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Masoretic Hebrew are particularly important and Joel cites some very good examples (e.g. pages 86-88 on the text of 1 Samuel 11). Here he describes the text of 4QSam(a) which has an additional section explaining why Nahash has such a brutal desire for the pact with Jabesh-Gilead. For this example, one might not question the appropriateness of the book's subtitle: The Holy Scriptures Missing from Your Bible. But the other pseudepigraphic stories are less than illuminating and more a set of anecdotes. These writings (including Josephus) are curious, useful, provide context or even data for clarification of the canon, but are they Holy?

Joel summarizes the big picture in a short chapter 8 making his key point that "we have an ancient culture that welcomed different opinions rather than focusing on one answer." The chapter on Josephus has a number of opinions on things related to the Adam and Eve story. But one doesn't need Josephus to know that there are multiple intertwined stories in the Bible admitting of differing opinions and interpretations. I doubt that anyone consulted Josephus as the canon was forming. Joel does a good job of showing how unreliable the Josephus tradition is including its most popular English translation, (but I note a counter to my negative take on Josephus where he is called "our single most important source for ancient Jewish history".)

Joel draws from Adam and Eve, from Abraham, from Enoch, three different reasons why humanity suffers and contrasts these with the reward and punishment of Deuteronomy and its counter-argument in Job, "which suggests that life is fundamentally impossible to understand" (Page 262). I suspect that Joel wants to get inside the closed mindedness that can be produced by a canon, but I am not sure he will succeed with this approach nor am I convinced of his conclusions. I agree, though, that Job is a direct response to Deuteronomy. Just to touch on the direct allusions to the covenant, consider the successive destruction of Job's livestock and children, Deuteronomy 28:31-32 and the final straw, Job 2:7 echoes Deuteronomy 28:35. All this in the context of blessings and cursings.

I tend at this time in my life to less breadth and more close reading. That's why I am not sorry that lots of things are not in the Bible. I have found enough to study already. The Psalms alone provide all the variety about the nature of human life that these apocryphal stories do. Reward and punishment, unjustified suffering, futility, love, and glory are all adequately dealt with in that one canonical text.

I suspect that the textual transmission even in what we have as canonical is far more complex at the detail level than can be contained in the curious elaborations that were left out. Examples of such thinking arrived across my desk as I was reading. Here for instance is an abstract of how harsh expressions may have been dealt with. Redressing the Calamity in the Transmission of the Bible by Alexander Rofé.

Joel cites many examples of copyist and translation difficulties, some from the Dead Sea Scrolls, some from the magical Septuagint translation, and some highlighted by texts gleaned from the unreliable Josephus. These variations are legion. One wonders where to start and how to manage the incoherence. Perhaps, therefore, the title of the book is apt, there being so many hands in the transmission of the text.

Those who should read such a book as The Bible's Cutting Room Floor in order that they be exposed to other ways of looking at the Biblical texts likely won't pick it up, but those who don't need to maybe will, and its introductory material will be helpful to them. I found reading it a fun trial of the questions and a good read but I do not find myself satisfied by the conclusions expressed or implied concerning the Holy, the Bible, or the nature of being human.

One needs the overview of the problems in the canon both of commission and omission. But to address the Holy, one must address also the problem of canon, of Israel as parable, and of the enemy, particularly the enemy that is within each of us, in order that somehow we might begin to achieve some co-inherence within our knowledge of good and evil. It may be that the canonical garment fits well enough to stimulate such wholeness and also that books such as Joel's can begin to help us avoid our tendency to embrace tight-fitting responses to the ancient texts.
"Their new reality was so shocking, in fact, that it would take them a whole week to realize that they were hungry." 
Joel has a delightfully titled blog, God Didn't Say That (rare posts this year - he's been busy). He is now working on the site The Unabridged Bible. He is a clear teacher. I remember with gratitude his patience and help to me many years ago when I could not yet distinguish וְֽהָיָה and יְהוָה. In this clarity, he follows in his father's steps. Lawrence Hoffman's Covenant of Blood was an in-depth eye-opener for my own reading in ancient Judaism.

The Bible's Cutting Room Floor is 276 pages, including a brief appendix on further reading. There is an index of sources and Scriptural references. I missed in the index (at the stage I saw it) a pointer to 'theology' since I did want to recheck some of his theological assumptions and reflections, but I was happy to see several references to 'good and evil'.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Religion without God (3)

Continuing the previous posts on Religion without God, a very short book (30,000 words or so) by the late philosopher and legal expert, Ronald Dworkin.

A great deal of Dworkin's arguments in the first three chapters have to do with the distinct universes of facts and values. In the last legal chapter, this distinction is recognized for how vague it is. Ultimately he cannot sustain the distinction without appeals to forms of words that are, as my mother would say, ridiculous. For example, he writes (p. 23) The science part [of a religion] offers answers to important factual questions about the birth and history of the universe, the origin of human life, and whether or not people survive their own death."

Can one even speak of fact, theory, or value when one considers the creation of the universe? No, one speaks or writes in mythic language, in story language, and experientially as one considers the presence of one's own thoughts. We are alive, we consider, and we react with story, history, myth, and derived value. Fact and value are not separated into science and value.

I am not a philosopher and I have no intention of citing Hume, Kant, Nietzsche or Putnam or anyone else for my justification of my own thoughts. None of these is an authority of necessity. Nor even is the so called idea of revealed religion. One must consider the story with one's self entirely engaged. And that is the problem in a nutshell. Engagement is frightening because there is no remainder of one's self that can stand objectively against the commitment.

This is faith. And it is permitted in all spheres, including the scientific, in sports, in music, in joy and in sorrow. Faith is not a blind leap, but it is a trust that tests its own assumptions as it matures, and that looks for a fruitfulness that is acceptable. The fact of acceptance, and the desire of acceptability are indistinguishable. There is no logic other than the paradox of self-giving. Dworkin does not approach this problem. He gets close in his brief on Tillich and the appropriate antinomy of affirming and denying simultaneously, and ultimately, he himself in his legal arguments approaches the same impasse without passing over.

Anyway, what do I know that I should dare an explanation? I know that an explanation will not satisfy. Satisfaction, the end of the story of Job, is impenetrable via logic. That is why Job's comforters fail, and YHWH presents himself via the mythical behemoth and leviathan, ciphers for Job and for God also. The psalmist writes of awakening: I will be satisfied to awaken in your similitude, in your likeness, created and brought forth after your own kind. (See this post which I wrote a few days before receiving Dworkin's book.)

Now - what is the story and are you willing to commit yourself into its keeping? The question requires some hard work, like any marriage, and its fruitfulness will be evident to others whether they are explicitly committed to this story or not. In fact, they will be your judges even as the salt-seafarers judged Jonah and in doing so themselves became mortals. My words are carefully chosen. I find it curious that these pagans, from Jonah's point of view, get the situation better than the reluctant prophet.

I hope to do one more post on this book, because Dworkin raises the spectre of worship. This requires a little more work from me, but so be it. The churches have a form of worship that has drama and character and a story - let's see if it can be found...