SBL International Meeting in Berlin

I am planning to be at the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) International Meeting in Berlin Germany this coming August. If anyone who reads this blog also plans to be there I’d love to meet up.

I will be presenting a paper on my research in Jonah:

“Should not I pity Nineveh?” – the concluding conundrum in the book of Jonah

Abstract: The book of Jonah is one of only two biblical books which end with a question in most English translations. Arguably, the most sophisticated theology in the book is also expressed in the form of a question (“Who knows? God may turn and relent …”).

But do the translators interpret the concluding verse correctly? As the phrase lacks the usual interrogative markers some scholars have challenged this common reading and have argued that it is declarative.  This paper looks at the function of questions in the book of Jonah, and examines whether the conclusion is best read as interrogative or declarative within this context. It has been argued that a declarative reading of this phrase would reverse its meaning and the theology of the book of Jonah and that this alone would invalidate an affirmative reading. However, the use of irony in a work frequently acknowledged to be replete with irony, satire and comic elements should influence our reading of the conclusion. If the conclusion to the book is an affirmation, rather than a question, could God’s lack of concern for Nineveh be read as a further irony?

This paper looks at the use of irony, satire and comic elements in the book and how an affirmative conclusion works in this context, and offers an interpretation of the theology and message of the book which is consistent with an affirmative conclusion.

The binding of Isaac (2)

I think the Medieval Jewish commentator Maimonides was on to something when he argued that Abraham ‘misunderstood’ God when he attempted to sacrifice Isaac. A variation of the idea was proposed in an article by Curt Leviant titled “Abraham’s Failed Test” [1]. Leviant emphasised the importance of reading the story in context, and pointed to an earlier dialogue between God and Abraham when Abraham ‘negotiated’ with God to save the corrupt city of Sodom if there was even just a handful of righteous people there. Throughout the story of Abraham in Genesis there is an interesting sub-theme in the way God talks with Abraham. The story begins with God telling Abraham (then named Abram) to leave his home-city of Ur and his relatives and travel to a place he would show him. The journey takes many years as Abram stops along the way, and takes family members with him. God doesn’t speak with him again until he reaches the ‘promised land’ and parts company with his last relative, his nephew Lot. Thereafter we find God speaking with Abraham with increasing frequency. But after the attempted sacrifice of Isaac the communication stops – God never speaks with him again. Even the order not to kill his son comes through an angel, rather than God himself. It seems that God was disappointed with Abraham and never spoke to him again.

But that’s not all. It also seems that his wife Sarah didn’t speak with him again. At the end of the story about the binding of Isaac the writer tells us that Abraham went to live in Beer-Sheba (Genesis 22:19) but soon after we find him travelling to Hebron where his wife Sarah had died (23:1).  They weren’t living together apparently. Why not? Was Sarah annoyed with him because of his attempt to sacrifice her only child? We don’t read of any interaction between Abraham and Isaac either. Abraham arranged a marriage for him, but Isaac appeared to be living away from his father. Reading between the lines it seems the family was fractured and Abraham’s relationship with God deteriorated.

If this was a ‘test’ it appears, as Leviant suggested, that Abraham failed the test. He should have negotiated with God, as he did for the corrupt city of Sodom. Or, if he misunderstood, as Maimonides suggested, then God was disappointed, or annoyed, that Abraham didn’t speak up for his son’s life as he did for Sodom. Either way, the story highlights that the ‘heroes’ of the Hebrew Bible are mostly deeply flawed men. They are not meant to be role models, but examples of how God works to achieve his purposes through people who are hardly ideal, often flawed, sometimes corrupt or incompetent, and always very human.

  1. Leviant, Curt. “Abraham’s failed test.” Midstream 56, no. 3 (2010): 31. 31

The binding of Isaac (1)

Sacrifice of Isaac

Sacrifice of Isaac (Sacrificio d’Isacco) by Caravaggio c. 1598

How could a good God tell a father to sacrifice his son? I’ve heard it asked several times (mostly by atheists) referring to the biblical story of Abraham’s (attempted) sacrifice of his son Isaac. It comes across to me as a smug question, but not a clever one.

Richard Dawkins referred to it as a “disgraceful story” and as “child abuse”. He said “As it turns out God was only joking after all, ‘tempting’ Abraham, and testing his faith. A modern moralist cannot help but wonder how a child could ever recover from such psychological trauma. By the standards of modern morality, this disgraceful story is an example simultaneously of child abuse, bullying in two asymmetrical power relationships, and the first recorded use of the Nuremberg defense: ‘I was only following orders.'” [1]

Let me say first that while Christians often speak of the sacrifice of Isaac, Jews generally refer to this incident as the Akedah – the binding of Isaac (as Isaac wasn’t actually sacrificed). To me, there are a couple of really interesting things about the binding of Isaac. First, it portrays Abraham in a bad light and I think it’s significant that the Hebrew Bible portrays its main characters as deeply flawed human beings, not as ‘saints’ or extraordinary people. Second, this story forms part of a book which condemns human sacrifice. So why would a book which condemns child sacrifice include an incident where one of its ‘heroes’ appears to be doing just that?

The Hebrew Bible is incredibly sophisticated literature. Its authors were clearly not stupid. It is inconceivable that they wouldn’t have noticed a glaring ‘contradiction’ like this (if, in fact, it is a contradiction). It seems to me that to dismiss this story as evidence that either (a) there is no god, or (b) if there is a god then he/she/it is ‘immoral’, is to take the lazy way out. I am much more interested in why the authors decided to include a story which portrays their patriarch and their god in such a shockingly confronting way, especially when the same authors condemn the very thing they are reporting.

I think we should take note of the conflicts in the story (call them ‘contradictions’ if you like, although I personally don’t think it’s a good word because they appear to be quite intentional rather than accidental), and there are several of them. Abraham ‘the saint’ is juxtaposed against Abraham ‘the sinner’ on several occasions throughout Genesis and the deliberateness of it has to be saying something. We should also note a couple of ‘contradictions’ within this incident. First, when Abraham arrives at Moriah he tells his servants to wait for them: “I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” We are meant to take note that both Abraham and Isaac would return. Abraham either didn’t plan to sacrifice Isaac, or he fully expected something to happen (the NT says he expected a resurrection) and Isaac would be coming back. So premeditated murder is a long way from the mind of the author(s).

Second, there is the question of why Abraham was initially told by God to do something, but then accepted God’s directive being overruled by an angel, a lesser spiritual being. That also has to be deliberate and shouldn’t be ignored.

The medieval Jewish rabbis pointed out that the Hebrew text doesn’t actually have God telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (although the English translations usually do), and that Abraham ‘misunderstood’. That would go someway further in portraying Abraham as ‘flawed’ and would be consistent with other aspects of the story. It might also explain why the storyteller then has God refusing to speak to the obtuse Abraham, and delivers his next message through his agent instead.

The words “and offer him there for a burnt offering” translate just three words in the Hebrew text (or two actually, because one word is repeated). The Hebrew word translated “offer” was used later in Israel’s history for burnt offerings, but comes from a root which literally means “to go up” (hence it was later used in the evolution of the language for offerings whose smoke ‘went up’). The word is used twice: והעלהו שם לעלה (you may notice the three letters עלה repeated in the first and last word of the phrase – they are just variations of the same word), which might literally mean “offer him there as an offering” (that kind of repetition is not unusual in Hebrew), but could mean, as the Medieval Jewish commentator Maimonides pointed out, an emphatic “bring him up” (the mountain). There was no further instruction about what to do when they got there – Abraham ‘misunderstood’ the intention.

I should clarify that I wasn’t suggesting the translators got it wrong. In fact, the Hebrew והעלהו שם לעלה would quite naturally read as “offer him there as an offering”, especially in light of later usage. In pointing out Maimonides’ alternative reading I was trying to make the point that Jewish, Christian and Islamic scholars have wrestled with the many questions raised by this text for centuries. It doesn’t seem the least bit clever to me that an atheist should raise this incident as some kind of dilemma for believers when believers themselves have been discussing the ethical issues since at least the first century. The point I am making is that the text reads (to me) to be intentionally confronting and that the writer is deliberately raising serious ethical questions. We should note that Genesis is a narrative preamble to a legal document and carefully lays the foundation for why Israel ‘needed’ the law, and why their law should be different to the other ancient near eastern nations (who frequently offered human sacrifices, which Israel’s law denounced). I personally think it is much more enriching to explore the issues that the narrative raises, rather than smugly poking fun at believers as though they hadn’t noticed the problem.

  1. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006), p. 242

… to be continued

I’m still here

A student asked me today if I have any plans to post anything again on my blog. I guess it has been quite a while. My answer to him was that blogs are a real dilemma for PhD candidates. We tend to be pretty focussed on the subject of our research and have a kind of tunnel-vision which sometimes makes it difficult to write (or think) about anything else. On the one hand blogging about other subjects could be a much-needed healthy distraction (although I have no problem finding distractions!) On the other hand, distractions can be very time-consuming so we become riddled with guilt because we are not working on our thesis whilever we write about anything else.

There is also a fear that if we write about our research we will give away our best ideas and someone else will beat us to the post and publish our ideas before we submit our thesis, meaning our work is longer ‘original’. So we want to keep that stuff to ourselves, but feel that the rest is not interesting enough to blog about. Many PhD candidates are strangely silent in the blogosphere, while others seem to find the time and inclination to blog about anything and everything. I don’t know how they do it. Every time I’ve convinced myself to start blogging again the effort lasts a few days or at best a few weeks, and then I fall silent again.

I probably gave him the impression that I’m not likely to be blogging again for a while, so, just to contradict myself, I’m going to post something!

By the way, I’d be interested to hear from fellow PhD candidates, or those who have gone before us, how you feel about blogging while working on a thesis.