Biblical studies: January 2009 Archives

SciFi Samson

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Warner Brothers has announced a science fiction retelling of the Samson story in a futuristic context. SciFi Wire's description of Samson catches my interest:

Samson gives a futuristic twist to the story of the biblical strongman who was invincible until he was betrayed by Delilah, to whom he entrusted the secret that his strength came from his long hair.

I have no idea if they're just repeated something WB had given them or are going by their understanding of what the Samson story is about, but it strikes me as relying on a popular misconception of Samson, one that I've seen gotten right in pop culture only once that I can think of (and that was Veggie Tales' Minnesota Cuke: the Search for Samson's Hairbrush).

Samson's strength in the book of Judges doesn't derive from his hair at all. His hair is only mentioned twice. The first time is God's command to Samson's parents that he would be a Nazirite from birth, an exceptional situation given that a Nazirite vow was usually voluntary and temporary. Those who took the vow wouldn't cut their hair, among other restrictions, for the duration of their vow. Nothing is said there to tie the strength to the hair. His hair is simply part of his being a Nazarite. Nowhere else in the Samson narrative is his strength mentioned in the context of his hair until the Delilah account. His strength is simply something God gives him for use in judging those who are evil toward God's people. When Delilah presses him for an explanation, and he mentions his hair, with every reason to believe that she'd have it cut (given her past responses to his lies about the source of his strength), he in effect sets himself up to violate his vow. So God takes his strength away. But the narrative itself never endorses the view that his strength really did come from his hair.

Now it's possible that Samson himself really did think the hair was the source of the power, in which case the fact that he's willing to boil it down to his hair is a sign that he doesn't get it himself. That theme appears throughout Judges and the Samson narratives in particular. The judges get progressively less faithful and more mixed in motivation, culminating in Samson, who frequently shows little care for the Torah's stipulations, up to the point of putting himself in a position where his Nazirite status gets prematurely cut off (pun intended). But it's not clear that he really thought this, as far as I can tell, and the narrator never tells us this.

I can see how a scifi version of it can get some basic plot similarities, but it certainly loses the main point of the whole thing unless it's not replacing the religious elements with scifi ones but simply tells the story with that side intact but in a different context. I have a feeling they won't do that, though, since the point of doing a futuristic version of it is probably to have some science fiction explanation of how hair can contain within it the explanation for super-strength.

I've been reading through Joshua lately. When I got to the Gibeonite episode in chapter 9, I noticed something that I don't think had ever registered with me before. Several other examples have since occurred to me.

In Joshua, Israel had a divine mandate to carry out: God's judgment on the Amorites declared all the way back in Genesis 15. I think most Biblical scholars take the Genesis 15 reference to include all the people living in the land, not just ethnic Amorites, just as later texts use the term 'Canaanites' to refer to all of the people, even though several lists include Amorites and/or Canaanites among lots of other names (Hivites, Girgashites, Jebusites, Hittites, Perizzites; no list actually has exactly the same combination in the same order).

The Gibeonites were part of that mandate, but they deceived Israel into thinking they were from a far-away land and had come to Canaan to make a covenant with Israel to protect them. Israel bought the deception and made the covenant.

What I hadn't noticed before is that the text seems to assume Israel's responsibility to keep that covenant, even given the deception. It's common nowadays to assume that a promise is void if it's made under false pretenses, because your words didn't apply to exactly the thing you thought you were agreeing to. If I promise to pay off a debt you have that you tell me you accrued due to an oppressive landlord's cruel policies, and then I later discover that you have the debt merely because of gambling, the idea is that I don't have any obligation to pay the debt for you, because I didn't agree to pay off a gambling debt. I only agreed to pay off a debt caused by an unjust landlord. I know of one philosophical paper on the subject of consent that argues that someone hasn't given voluntary, informed consent to sex if they've given explicit consent but the person had been hiding the fact that the two were close relatives, because giving consent to sex doesn't amount to giving consent to incest if you don't know the person is a close relative and the other person does.

I'm seeing a several biblical accounts that seem to assume a contrary position. The Gibeonite case is just one instance among a few that have occurred to me, but it's a particularly vivid example of how fully in force this covenant is, even generations later, even to a king who had no idea that it was being violated until he inquired of God. By II Samuel 21, Israel's failure to keep that covenant in Saul's time (Saul had tried to wipe the Gibeonites out) had led to God causing a three-year famine as judgment. David, in his ignorance, was facing the famine in the kingdom as a consequence of not keeping that covenant. The covenant was made in ignorance, and it was continuing to be broken in ignorance, but that did not exempt Israel from their obligation to it. David was even ignorant of the cause of the famine, but he still bore responsibility for dealing with it. David remedied the problem and honored the covenant.

I can think of several other instances just in the book of Genesis. In Genesis 12, Abram visits Egypt and says that his wife Sarai is his sister (which he later says is technically true; see Gen 20:12, but it's still deception). Pharaoh gets upset when he discovers the deception, because he could have married her and thus married another man's wife. Even if he had done so in ignorance, the reason he gives for his outrage is that Abram could have caused him to sin ignorantly. A similar circumstance occurs later in Abraham's life in Genesis 20 but with Abimelek the king of Gerar instead of Pharaoh. A third instance of the same fault occurs with Abraham's son Isaac in Genesis 26, who also faces a similar situation with someone called Abimelek the king of Gerar (not necessarily the same figure, since it could be a title like 'Pharaoh'). It's possible in these cases that it's just an ethical framework shared by the Hebrews, Egyptians, and Gerarites. If so, it doesn't mean someone holding to the authority of scripture would have to say that God endorses it. It's the words of the Pharaoh or Abimelek that assume the principle.

But in Joshua and the subsequent Samuel text, it seems harder to say that. I think the narrator more clearly endorses the principle there. That also seems to me to be true of a couple more cases in Genesis, involving Jacob. First, In Genesis 27, Jacob deceives his father Isaac into giving his blessing to him rather than to his older twin brother Esau, who would normally have received it. Since this was not just a father's blessing but a passing on of the blessing bestowed on Isaac via the covenant with Abraham, there was only one blessing of this sort to give, and Isaac recognized that once the blessing was given, he'd passed on what had been entrusted to him by God. He couldn't undo it. That sacred trust had been given to Jacob now. The narrator seems to assume that as much as Isaac does when he explains to Esau that he can't now give his blessing to him also.

The Broadness of Inerrancy

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When I last hosted the Christian Carnival, I linked to Henry Neufeld's Interpreting the Bible III -- The Impact of Inerrancy. Henry does not hold to inerrancy, but he wants to point out how there's quite a variety among people who hold to a relatively high view of scripture. There's been an excellent discussion in the comments since I linked to it in the carnival, and I wanted to express some of what I've been saying there (much of which is simply modified from my comments).

My main claim is that the variety of views Henry is pointing to are not entirely but are largely available within inerrantist views. But I don't think that's because there are different views called inerrancy, as Henry's post seems to take it. There surely are different things people mean by calling a view inerrancy. But most of the variation doesn't come because people mean something different by 'inerrancy'. It's because they think the ultimate determiner of whether something counts as an error in the relevant way is the context and culture of the original human author, and disagreements often arise on that issue. That means two people can both be inerrantists in exactly the same sense but disagree about whether an inerrantist should accept a certain claim about a certain part of scripture.

There are some people who think inerrancy requires thinking of Ruth, Jonah, Daniel, and Esther (for example) as historical, and there are others who think inerrancy allows thinking of them as allegories or parables. I'm not sure it follows that these involve two different conceptions of the meaning of the term 'inerrancy'. After all, those who don't think Jonah is a parable but think it's an actual recounting of real events nevertheless have no problem thinking of Jesus' parables as parables that didn't really happen. So they have no problem with inerrancy allowing for parables. The dispute seems to me to involve books that seem on the surface just like the historical accounts elsewhere in the Old Testament, something not true of Jesus' parables. Some hold that the presumption is to take them as historical. Others do not. But they might believe the same thing about what inerrancy involves, given that a book is presumed to be historical.

I don't happen to think Jonah and the narrative portions of Daniel are parables. I don't think Isaiah 40-66 (often called Second Isaiah and Third Isaiah by scholars) were written by later authors. I think they were composed by the actual Isaiah. But I don't think you need to deny inerrancy to hold that Jonah is a parable or that Second Isaiah and Third Isaiah were written by later authors in the Isaianic tradition. I just think you have to make a mistake about the historical background and how such works could be taken in context. I'd say the same about pseudonymity in New Testament epistles. I hold that inerrancy, combined with an accurate view on historical matters, will lead to conservative positions on such issues. That means I often disagree with the majority view among scholars about questions of historicity. But it's not inerrancy itself that makes the difference. It's a judgment on such other issues. I should mention that Craig Blomberg and Tremper Longman have made similar points in published works, and they're both pretty conservative inerrantists.

One place this applies in my own thinking is that I don't think Genesis' early chapters give a chronological historical account, but I do think they teach what God did, and they do so without error. Six-day creationists claim my view is at odds with inerrancy, but it's not, and I don't think this is a different view of inerrancy. It's a different view of how inerrancy applies given of a different view about how genre works. I don't share the mainstream consensus about genre with respect to Jonah and Daniel, but I do on Genesis to some extent.


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