Biblical studies: February 2009 Archives

I've been looking a little at Gerald Wilson's NIV Application Commentary volume on Psalms 1-72, and in his discussion of the psalm I'm looking at he refers to his introduction's discussion of psalm titles, where I found the following curious argument. First, he explains the common view that the psalms themselves later came to have musical instructions, with authorship ascriptions added still later and then the historical notes providing a setting even later than that. It's the reasoning that struck me as interesting:

Several features of the psalm headings in the LXX add some weight to this suggestion. The Greek translation of the liturgical terms and notices evidence a degree of uncertainty and confusion. The rather standard instruction "To the director" is translated eis to telos ("To the end [of time]"). This and other equally awkward renderings suggest the translators had only an imperfect understanding of these liturgical terms. This likely means that the liturgical elements were early enough for their meaning to have been partially obscured by the time of the Greek translation -- at least those terms specifically related to temple worship.

By contrast, the LXX not only acknolwedges the author designations in the Hebrew psalm headings but adds to them considerably, increasing the number of Davidic psalms and including attributions to persons and historical contexts that do not appear in the Hebrew versions. This suggests that the author attributions and historical references were later than the liturgical elements and were still in a state of some fluidity. The appearance among the Qumran psalms scrolls and fragments of additional psalms, Davidic attributions, and historical notices not included in the canonical Paslter supports this developing view.

Maybe I just don't understand the argument or need more background information that Wilson doesn't provide, but I'm not fully following all of this. I'm not sure I have enough information here to evaluate the Greek translation of what commonly gets translated as "to the director". Is there a term in Hebrew similar to the one that's been passed down to us that could have caused this confusion? If so, why prefer the reading we've got rather than that one? If not, then do we have any explanation why the Greek translators made this mistake? Or could it be that they might have understood the Hebrew better than we do, and contemporary translations just have it wrong? A popular-level commentary need not get into these issues, but if you're going to be bring it up it might be worth presenting the argument more completely. As things stand, I see no reason in his argument for preferring our understanding of the Hebrew to that of the Greek translators 2100 years ago. If (as Wilson seems to be saying) it was that obscure to them, what reasons do we have for now thinking we've got a better understanding? For all I know, we do have such reasons, but it would have been nice to see what they are if they exist.

The curious part of all this is when you compare about with similar reasoning in other biblical books. This is an argument that something that's more extensive in the LXX is inferior and later than the Hebrew MT. Wilson treats this as the majority view among scholars. I know full well that the recent tendency among mainstream scholars in the early chapters of I Samuel is to treat the significant LXX expansions as earlier and more reliable than the traditional readings from the Hebrew MT. That makes me wonder if the people who say this sort of thing are also among those who do the opposite with I Samuel. The issues aren't always the same with two biblical books. Virtually all scholars agree that the LXX expansions to Daniel and Esther are much later than the original Hebrew works, and virtually all scholars accept some LXX readings as superior to the MT, especially if the LXX agrees with evidence in Hebrew texts that have been found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. But it makes me wonder what it is that leads scholars to have rejected these LXX additions but not the I Samuel ones. I've always been skeptical of the I Samuel ones myself, so I don't consider this an idle question.

I've recently discovered that an argument I've often seen and sometimes used is based on something untrue. Christians pacifists (and pacifists intending to win over Christians) often make the claim that, since one of the ten commandments says "do not kill", it must always be immoral to kill. I've also seen the sixth commandment come up in lists of supposed Bible contradictions. Most such lists are filled with mainly easily-resolved surface-language differences with the occasional serious difficulty that takes some real work to resolve (although I know of no such difficulties that don't have at least one possible solution, thus showing that it's not actually a contradiction).

One (among several) responses to both of these claims is that the word used for murder in the sixth commandment in fact does not mean killing but simply means murder, so the only kinds of killing that it could be talking about are those that are wrong, leaving it open that there are kinds of killing that are not wrong. It turns out that this isn't true. There are several words for killing in biblical Hebrew, and this term isn't the most common one. It's usually reserved for contexts of killing within the covenant community, usually used in cases where the killing is especially divisive, often with inter-tribal conflicts in mind.

Its most frequent occurrences are all in one chapter, though, and that chapter is Numbers 25, which provides the details of the city of refuge provision of the Mosaic law. The ancient near eastern method of bringing murders to justice was to have an appointed avenger within each extended family or clan unit, who would hunt down and kill anyone who killed one of their own. The city of refuge provision took several of the Levitical cities and made them safe havens from avengers until a trial could take place, thus ensuring justice could be pursued more carefully as long as the accused was willing to flee to one of those cities. If the person was not found guilty of deliberate murder, they could live in the Levitical city until the death of the current high priest atoned for their sin of negligence, but otherwise they could be put to death once convicted.

I don't remember all the details now, but after looking over this with someone who knows Hebrew I discovered that most or all of the occurrences of deliberate murder used the same word as in the sixth commandment, but the term also occurs two or three times of the killing by the avenger, which as far as I can determine is legally sanctioned killing. It's not used of outright death penalties for specific crimes in the Torah, but it is used of the avenger's killing of duly convicted criminals. So what was probably the easiest response to the difficulties I mentioned above doesn't seem to be correct. The pacifist may not be able to claim that what the commandment says not to do can cover every kind of killing, but they can claim that the word can be used for legalized killing. Also, you can't get out of the supposed contradiction simply by saying the word doesn't mean "kill" but means "murder", since the Torah seems to allow instances of killing that use this very word. But I don't think this puts a stop to the kind of view I would defend. It just makes one of the easier and quicker responses no longer as easy and quick as I would have liked.

Rash Vows

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There are several cases of vows with strange conditions in the Bible. Many of these are rash vows, often morally negligent or suspect. In Joshua 9, the Israelites make a covenant with Gibeon under the false pretense that they were from far away, when they had a command from God to wipe out any of the peoples of the land. Once they made the vow, they honored the covenant with Gibeon and didn't kill them rather than keeping the command of God to wipe them out. In Judges 11, Jephthah vows to sacrifice the first thing to come through his gate, expecting it to be an animal, and it turns out to be his daughter. In a very tragic move, he ends up fulfilling his vow and sacrificing her.

King Saul makes a similarly rash vow in I Samuel 14. He says that if any of his soldiers eat during their attack, they would be put to death. His son Jonathan wasn't present for that vow, and when he found honey in the woods he ate some. In this case, however, Saul's soldiers convince him not to keep the vow. You get the sense that he only did it because his men were able to calm him down and talk some reason into him.

In I Kings 2, Solomon makes a promise to Bathsheba to grant her a favor but then refuses once he finds out that the favor was to do something that would in effect give his older half-brother Adonijah a foothold toward claiming the throne that David had passed on to Solomon. Adonijah flees Solomon's wrath and in fact has him killed. Adonijah had already been spared once when he grabbed the horns of the altar, and Solomon had let him go on the condition that he shows himself to be worthy; otherwise, he'd die. His request to Bathsheba showed Solomon the latter.

In the gospels, King Herod makes a promise to his step-daughter that he'd give her anything, up to half his kingdom, and is shocked when she asks for the head of John the Baptist. He complies to save face but perhaps only for that reason.

It's worth thinking through the conflicting moral principles that arise in these cases. The most fundamental is the third commandment the third commandment (not to take God's name in vain), which Jesus interprets simply as a command to let your "yes" be "yes" and your "no" be "no". The third commandment says not to use God's name in a way that doesn't take into full account who God is and our place in God's universe. The most fundamental way that we can take God's name in vain is simply to ignore God, thus living in a way that ignores God is the most serious violation of the third commandment. This is especially important for a people called to represent God as his ambassadors to the world, since the representation is a fact, and thus representing God badly takes his name in vain and drags it through the mud. But uttering God's name when you don't have any intention of referring to God, particularly in a sinful act of verbal outrage over something not all that important. So the common view that using a name that normally refers to God in a sort of curse is indeed correct. It's a violation of the third commandment. It's just not the most fundamental way to do so.

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