Pete Enns’s musings about the ark museum in Kentucky have led him to propose three important road signs for navigating the story successfully. Since my REL 130 students will be grappling with this story next week, I thought I’d link to what Dr. Enns has to say. The all-too-insufficient summary goes like this:
- The flood story seems to be rooted in history.
- The story of Noah and the flood, though rooted in history, is also rooted in the stories told among other ancient people living in or near Mesopotamia.
- The story does not depict an “accurate” account of history, but the ancient Israelites’ understanding of that long-past event that survived in cultural memory.
And here’s a brief snippet to encourage you to hop on over and see what Dr. Enns is getting at:
The reason given in Genesis for this need to start over is human wickedness. Now, this raises (and has raised for a long time) all sorts of problems, namely why God goes so over-the-top. We’re only in the 6th chapter of the Bible. Couldn’t God think of another solution or was drowning the only option?
But this may be asking the wrong question. Rather than trying to explain why God would do such and such, it is more fruitful to ponder what this story tells us about Israel’s understanding of God.
The reason the gods flood the earth in the Atrahasis epic is because humans, who were created for slave labor, were making too much noise. The Israelites, on the other hand, had something else to say about the character of their God and the obligation of humanity to God as creatures created in God’s image.
They had a different theology.
I truly appreciated this post by Eve Levavi Feinstein that leads the reader through the many possible interpretations of the commandment in Exodus 22 for Israelites to offer their firstborn sons to God. As Dr. Feinstein notes, it is not at all obvious what this commandment originally meant for Israelites to do, and the Bible itself offers support for a number of different possibilities. She writes,
In the end, the biblical evidence does not point to a single conclusive interpretation of the law in Mishpatim. On one hand, it may express a requirement (albeit aspirational) that every Israelite family sacrifice its firstborn son. While it is difficult to accept that the Torah commands the ritual slaughter of children, we can at least see in the commandment’s development an attempt to modify a bad law (as Ezekiel put it) by requiring monetary redemption in place of actual sacrifice (Exodus 34:20).
If, on the other hand, what the law required was service at a sanctuary, it calls for an expansion of our understanding of sacrifice in biblical thought. Indeed, the very plausibility of this interpretation — and the fact of its apparent acceptance by P — argues for a view of sacrifice that is not centrally about slaughter but is equally, if not more, about the act of giving.
In either understanding, the law in Mishpatim expresses the idea that the first of all life properly belongs to God. Underlying its cryptic and challenging mandate we can detect a conviction that every birth, human or animal, is a gift from God, which is to be recognized through a partial, symbolic return of life to its Maker.
This is a very nice post from Pete Enns, who is consistently insightful and entertaining. You would do well to read it. But I swear, the first thing that sprung to mind when I read it was, “Good Lord, they actually made a He-Man and She-Ra Christmas Special??”
Readers today might assume that these injunctions were more or less universally known to your average Joe-Sixpack and Sally-Housecoat Israelite (pretty sure that’s a partially correct Simpsons reference.) So we read the biblical stories about the failure to worship God properly as stories of out and out rebellion—“Geez Louise, Israelites, when in the world are you going to learn to obey God?! How many times do you have to be told?!”
But it may be that your average Jimmy-Lunch pail and Susie-Soccer mom Israelite had no real conception of how God is “supposed” to be worshiped. Or they had an idea, but, like a lot of American’s singing “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” or “I’ll be Home for Christmas,” they effortlessly and unknowingly mix together some vague awareness of what it all “really” means and just going with the cultural flow.
Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman offers a very helpful reflection on Leviticus and its place in contemporary Judaism:
Moses’ opening instruction provides a broader picture: “When you offer a sacrifice from yourselves to God….” The peculiar placement of mikem (“from yourselves”) implies more than the rote offering of animals. Sacrifice can be anything, as long as you really own it, says Ibn Ezra; better still, it must be something “from within yourself.”
The point is this: we study the sacrifices not because we expect to offer up animals again, but because sacrifice is only tangentially about animals in the first place. On a deeper level, it is about the human passion to give up even what we hold dearest, if our doing so will further life’s larger purposes. It is about self-sacrifice or it is about nothing.
Somebody needs to build this. I would pay to see it.
Welcome to the Whirlwind Creation Museum. Other so-called creation museums place their emphasis on a narrow, literalistic, modernist reading of the early chapters of Genesis. They imagine that these chapters simply “tell it like it is” — this is how God did it. Period. We, however, focus on a more panoramic and comprehensive text about how God created and rules over the universe, our world and its inhabitants: Job, chapters 38-42. This passage reminds us that we weren’t there, and none of us actually has any idea what God has wrought or how it all fits together. Job teaches us that herein lies wisdom.
It is my pleasure to give you an overview of the museum today, so that I might then set you free to explore the vast wonders of creation on your own — wonders that go beyond our human ability to describe and explain.
You see, we think the most basic truth about creation is its ultimate incomprehensibility.
Though we humans have the privilege to use our minds and imaginations to explore and discover and theorize and understand God’s creation, we will never come to the end of it. Its sheer scope and its innumerable mysteries resist our attempts to grasp it all. Its contradictions and conundrums stretch the limits of our logic. Before this great universe, we are very small. We do not think this should discourage us, however. Instead, we devote ourselves to learning, appreciating, contemplating, and proclaiming the splendor of God’s handiwork. In the end we yield our quest for all knowledge to the spirit of trust and worship.
My wife actually has a distant ancestor named Balaam (although he spelled it “Balum”). This ancient Gentile prophet is something of a paradox in the Hebrew Bible and even moreso in later Jewish tradition. Sometimes he is depicted as a paragon of virtue, a “righteous gentile,” but at other times he is vilified as one who led God’s people astray.
This post by Seth Sanders provides an informative introduction to this perplexing figure.