19 October 2007

Philosophy Class (Week 8)

We're still talking about the Old Testament right now. We spent most of the week on Exodus 19-20, i.e. the ten commandments. Well, one of the three versions of the ten commandments. Part of what came up in the discussion was the documentary hypothesis.

Short version: due to differences in language, word usage, and style, it is no longer believed that a single person wrote the entire Pentateuch. The hypothesized writers (or groups of writers, as Melissa tells me) are designated by letters. J is so-called because 'he' refers to God as JHVH (or YHVH), which, as both Dr. Levenson and Fibonacci have told me, no one is entirely certain how to pronounce any longer. Dr. Levenson was plainly uncomfortable with even trying to pronounce it, and while he showed us the Hebrew characters for it, he quickly erased them. The texts attributed to J also tend to be extremely ambiguous. The Adam and Eve story is one, as is the story of Cain and Abel (ambiguous because God puts a mark on Cain to protect him). Melissa told me that one scholar has compiled a collection of the J texts, and argues that J's God was something of a Coyote figure, a trickster.

If I recall correctly, Dr. Levenson said that 'P' (for priestly) was believed to have written Exodus 19-20. There is no ambiguity here. God is an awesome, nearly frightening force, and all but Moses are too terrified to approach. As an interesting aside, Dr. Levenson mentioned that in every rabbinic commentary he's read on the verses, there is a general agreement that despite the terror, there was also a blissful sense of God's presence, as if they had once again come near to paradise. This is nowhere to be found in the text, and yet there seems to be near universal Jewish agreement on it.

It's this notion of fear that has never made sense to me. The only thing I've been able to come up with is that maybe some have gotten so far removed from the divine that it seems terrifying. I just...can't even imagine that, really. Or is it just that they've never experienced it and the very idea terrifies them? That I can follow a little bit. It still doesn't make much sense to me, though. It's like...being afraid of yourself, of the world, of the change of the seasons... *sighs* I really don't get it.

Anyway, today we started on Amos, the first of the literary prophets books. Essentially, he's screaming about how all of Israel has fallen from God and God will thus destroy them. One noteworthy bit is that social justice is a big theme. The rich would rather buy shoes than help the poor and oppressed. Another noteworthy bit: Amos was not a "licensed" prophet. According to Dr. Levenson, there was a sort of prophet's guild, but Amos was freelance. The third noteworthy thing is that the language he used casts a sort of hypnotic spell. It's also interesting that a book containing the harshest criticism of the Israelites would be canonized into their scripture.


John said...

If you get to the "minor prophets" this link might be useful


John said...


Qalmlea said...

Yeah... I saw that link a while back. Now I'm trying to remember where I first saw it...

John said...

PZ Myers had a post linking to it on Pharyngula a while ago

James F. McGrath said...

One thing you neglected to mention about the book of Amos: it isn't threatening people with hell. The idea of rewards and punishment in the afterlife hasn't been developed yet.

You may find what Marcus Borg has to say about Ecclesiastes interesting, since he sees some parallels to Taoism. My students were simply shocked by Ecclesiastes. I posted something about it on my blog at http://exploringourmatrix.blogspot.com/2007/10/dont-be-too-righteous.html.

Qalmlea said...

Yeah. I like Ecclesiastes, overall. And we hadn't discussed the idea of the afterlife in class at all yet, so I hadn't consciously thought about it in relation to Amos.

John said...

Ecclesiastes is the "vanity of vanities, all is vanity" book, isn't it? I remember thinking the author must have been very depressed when writing it. But it has been many years since I read it.

Qalmlea said...

Depending on how it's read, I could see it as being depressed, or resigned might be more accurate. Ecclesiastes is more like the Tao te Ching than anything else in the Bible, recognizing the impermanence of things and deeds and people. There's also a strong sense of the neutrality of God (from Chapter 7):

"When times are good, be happy;
but when times are bad, consider:
God has made the one
as well as the other. "
16 Do not be overrighteous,
neither be overwise—
why destroy yourself?

17 Do not be overwicked,
and do not be a fool—
why die before your time?

18 It is good to grasp the one
and not let go of the other.
The man who fears God will avoid all extremes

^/^ These verses could almost have come straight out of the Tao te Ching.