Reading Bible Marginalia

Over at the New York Times 6th Floor Blog, there is a short post discussing the author Walter Kirn’s essay about reading the marginalia in his mother’s bible. Without a subscription to Byliner—any of you Holey Books readers out there want to gift us one?—we haven’t read the full essay, but it certainly sounds interesting.

Kirn has written well about Mormonism, among other religious topics.

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The Book of Judges is Not About Judges (Judg. 1)

The Book of Judges, the next book in the Old Testament that we will examine, has nothing to do with judges—unlike some of the other books we have looked at before, which seem to describe, broadly, their contents (Genesis and Exodus, for example), understanding why the Book of Judges is so named requires a little knowledge of Hebrew.

Upon its original writing—it forms part of the Deuteronomistic History, and was likely completed and/or entirely composed in the 6th Century BCE—the book was correctly named: it was called the Book of Shofetim, which is usually translated as “judges,” but only because the word only took a later meaning (of what we consider to be a “judge” now). At the time of the Book of Judges’ titling and composition, shofet meant “a leader,” or “a chief.” Hence why it doesn’t contain much of anything we would consider judge-related.

Thus, the main subjects of Judges—Ehud, Deborah, Samson, and Gideon, among others—are actually the former leaders of Israel, and one should really consider it to be, as scholar James Kugel notes, “The Book of Chiefs.”

For the purposes of Holey Books, we have to dig a little deeper on this note. What other words, we should ask, are mistranslated in this book? Language changes, inevitably, and the meanings of even common words fades in and out. Translation is messy and difficult, and, for those of us reading exclusively translated versions (I admit to not knowing a whit of Hebrew or Greek), we’re captive of the translation we’re given, and maybe the few footnotes also supplied. The Book of Judges’s eventual misnomer should remind us that knowing the exact meaning of anything in the text, at least if it hinges on a single word, is a precarious exercise.

So with that, we’ll move on into the substance of the “Book of Chiefs,” and all of the leaders of Israel it depicts.

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Top Posts of 2012

It’s the last day of the year. Seems like an appropriate time to share a little bit of data we’ve collected. Here are the five most visited posts in 2012:

  1. The Top 5 Most Ridiculous Things in Leviticus
  2. The Top Six Most Ridiculous Things in Genesis (Gen. 1-50)
  3. The Two Different Ten Commandments (Ex. 20)
  4. Heroes of Old, Men of Renown (Gen. 6)
  5. Marriage in Leviticus

A more general trend suggests that the increased prevalence of gay rights in the U.S. directed some traffic our way, especially following President Obama’s public announcement in support of marriage equality and during the Chick-Fil-A hubbub.

This project started out mostly as fun little exercise in writing and critique and has grown into something much more. Thank you for your continued readership. Everyone here at Holey Books wishes you the very best in the New Year.

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Another Suzerein Treaty (Josh. 24)

After more than a few boring verses, the Book of Joshua returns to interesting territory (so this blogger thinks) in chapter 23. There, Joshua, who is by now nearing the end of his life, exhorts the Israelites, and presses them, among other things, not to marry outside of their ethnic group (Josh. 23:12-13). This is in an effort for Israel to “not be mixed with these nations left” and to ensure the Israelites don’t “make mention of the names of their gods, or swear by them, or serve them, or bow [themselves] down to them” (Josh. 23:7). This occasions Joshua to gather all the tribes together to renew their covenant with Yahweh.

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Boring Joshua is Boring (Josh. 13-22)

While we have written several posts about Joshua, the book, as far as the parts read and remembered, is top-heavy: the rest is, well, not terribly narratively interesting (some parts of the Bible, as anyone knows who has read it straight through, are extraordinarily dry; others are page-turners). Josh. 13-22 concerns the ever-fascinating topic simply property division—something that might be interesting if some of the property is to come to you personally. But not if you’re living several centuries later. Here’s a sample:

From the hilltop the boundary headed toward the spring of the waters of Nephtoah, came out at the towns of Mount Ephron and went down toward Baalah (that is, Kiriath Jearim). 10 Then it curved westward from Baalah to Mount Seirran along the northern slope of Mount Jearim (that is, Kesalon), continued down to Beth Shemesh and crossed to Timnah. 11 It went to the northern slope of Ekron, turned toward Shikkeron, passed along to Mount Baalah and reached Jabneel. The boundary ended at the sea. (Josh. 15:9-11)

Sounds Tolkien-ish, really. (Rather, I guess Tolkien sounds Joshua-ish.) But that probably shorts some of the slower parts of “The Fellowship of the Ring” tremendously. This part of the book, while dry to read, of course, serves an important function.

We tend to think of the Bible merely as a historical record, or as a collection of myths, or merely as stories that tell moral precepts. It is of course all three of those things, but it’s often far from clear whether a story is historical, etiological, metaphorical, spiritual, or pure fantasy (or some combination of all of them). Josh 13-22 is one of those combinations: historical and etiological—yet it’s a combination of those things that we haven’t quite seen before. These “property division” chapters form a narrative that etiologically explains how (at the time of composition, somewhere around the sixth or seventh century BCE) various property lines were established, and how various peoples settled in various places. (It’s “historical” in that sense too, but, as James Kugel describes in “How to Read the Bible,” the historical record in Joshua isn’t entirely accurate.)

Anyway, if you’re reading along with us, feel free to skip to the end of Joshua (Josh. 23) for his farewell speech. That’s where I’ll pick up with our final post on the Book, before moving on to (much more interesting, I promise!) Book of Judges.

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NSRV Now on Bible Gateway

Good news for those of us (i.e., us at Holey Books) who use the excellent online Bible site BibleGateway: the site now has the Newly Revised Standard Version (NRSV) online.

While most anyone who is serious about analyzing the Bible uses the NSRV, our ability to link to it has been hampered by BibleGateway’s not having that edition; instead we have generally defaulted to the New International Version (NIV), which is still workable. We may still employ both on the site, but may more often turn to the NSRV.

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Remember That One Time God Listened to a Human Being? Yeah, That Was Great. (Josh. 10:14)

Prayer, among the faithful, is a powerful tool. It’s often used for thanking/praising God and for asking for God’s assistance in Life. As we’ve already seen, Joshua asks God for (and receives) some major assistance in the Battle of Gibeon (mostly Joshua 10). There, on Joshua’s command, God stops the sun and the moon so that the battle can continue in daylight. This is all wonderfully fantastical. There is, however, a verse that’s easy to throw away at the end of this story that proves a little tricky for believers who hold to intercessory prayer and the inerrancy of the Bible. After we’re told the sun stopped and that Israel “avenged” itself we’re told:

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David Petraeus as King David?

There always seems to be a way to connect current events to the Bible, in some fashion, relevantly or irrelevantly. (It’s usually the latter.)

But in the case of the David Petraeus scandal, however, it’s (surprisingly) the former: The Washington Post recently published an article connecting Petraeus with the Bible’s most famous military philanderer, King David.

Okay, okay: it still might not be “relevant,” but it is — at least — interesting.

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Achor: Just a Valley (Josh. 7)

Shortly after their victory at Jericho—which likely never happened—the Israelites, according to the Book of Joshua, are facing some military setbacks (Josh. 7). Naturally, the cause of these new problems is related to the reason for their prior victory: following God’s ritual nitpicking. Apparently, despite their miraculous win at Jerich0–for no other reason (we are told) then carting the Ark of the Covenant around the walls of the city–some of the Israelites have failed to heed their miracle-workers precepts. So it’s no surprise now that the Israelite’s failure to follow YHWH’s anti-pillaging policy has led to their failure to capture Ai.

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