Quran Read-Along: Is Al’-Imran 181-189 Talking About the Jews?

Slay Them Prophets

Whenever I see talk of slaying prophets, I immediately think of the accusations leveled against the ancient Israelites and assume that we must be talking about them. This would also fit, in parts of the Bible, with, “God is poor while we are rich.” For instance, during the Conquest of Cana’an that happens in the book of Joshua (and only in the book of Joshua I might add as the rest of the Bible and history itself make it rather clear that none of this really occurred, but it was only a story to demonstrate a few lessons), the people take some of the riches that were meant to belong to God. There’s no prophet slaying, though (beyond disobedience of Joshua), and this seems a rather literal interpretation of the fact.

The history of the First Temple during the reign of the Kings of Judah (pre-Josiah) might also call attention to this, as this was the period during which the people (priests) grew wealthy, ignored God, and killed his prophets (supposedly). But again, this seems quite literal, when in fact I detect a spiritual element to this idea: the presumption that we know what God doesn’t and are rich in life (and spirit), and that we ignore the prophets who are sent to him (i.e. slaying prophets is perhaps less literal and more along the lines of ignoring them, like say, what the Jews of Medina are doing to Mohammed).

Can We Start the Sacrifices Again, or What?

As we move into verses 183 and 184 my suspicions feel both confirmed and belied.

That is, the Jews would want their apostles (or prophets) to come to them with news related to burnt offerings – that is, the reinstatement of sacrifice and presumably news of all this happening at the Temple in Jerusalem (that implies fresh autonomy and perhaps the arrival of the messiah).

The rabbis say that prophecy ended with Alexander the Great (c.332 BCE in Jerusalem) because with him came Hellenization, a process that the rabbis considered antithetical to their own tradition and culture. Thus, prophecy was long considered over (nearly 1000 years over) by the time of Mohammed (this disregards the fact that the book of Daniel was written in the 160s BCE because it was believed to be from the early 6th C. BCE) and therefore Jews would have been most disinclined to believe Mohammed unless, presumably, he told them what they wanted to hear: that the future held sacrifices and a reinstatement of their tradition. The Quran seems to be saying that even back in the day when prophets said what Jews claimed they wanted to hear, you killed them.

Spread a Little Revelation

By verse 187 it sounds as though we’re talking about the notion of chosenness. That is to say that the messages of revelation were meant to be shared and spread around the world but instead they were turned inward and used for trifling gain – to make the Jews special for themselves (this is my guess). Christianity was doing the opposite (as an early proselytizing religion) so this seems to be a reference to only the Jews (unless I’m totally missing someone else here). I’m not sure where the line to ‘make it known to mankind’ comes from though. Where was this said?

As basic advice (toned down a smidge-a-roo), I like this: “Think not that those who exult in what they have thus contrived, and who love to be praised for what they have not done – think not that they will escape suffering: for grievous suffering does await them [in the life to come]” When I say toned down, I mean, it doesn’t have to be about grievous suffering for it to tell us that we don’t have to love pretentious people, what Holden Cofield might call phonies. Don’t pay them any mind, it seems to say (without the suffering part…).

Please feel free to comment and critique!

Al’-Imran 181-189

181. God has indeed heard the saying of those who said, “Behold, God is poor while we are rich!”  We shall record what they have said, as well as their slaying of prophets against all right, and We shall say [unto them on Judgment Day]: “Taste suffering through fire 182. in return for what your own hands have wrought – for never does God do the least wrong to His creatures!” 183.  As for those who maintain, “Behold, God has bidden us not to believe in any apostle unless he comes unto us with burnt offerings”  – say [unto them, O Prophet]: “Even before me there came unto you apostles with all evidence of the truth, and with that whereof you speak: why, then, did you slay them, if what you say is true?” 184. And if they give thee the lie – even so, before thy time, have [other] apostles been given the lie when they came with all evidence of the truth, and with books of divine wisdom, and with light-giving revelation. 185. Every human being is bound to taste death: but only on the Day of Resurrection will you be requited in full [for whatever you have done] – whereupon he that shall be drawn away from the fire and brought into paradise will indeed have gained a triumph: for the life of this world is nothing but an enjoyment of self-delusion. 186. You shall most certainly be tried in your possessions and in your persons; and indeed you shall hear many hurtful things from those to whom revelation was granted before your time, as well as from those who have come to ascribe divinity to other beings beside God. But if you remain patient in adversity and conscious of Him – this, behold, is something to set one’s heart upon. 187. AND LO, God accepted a solemn pledge from those who were granted earlier revelation [when He bade them]: “Make it known unto mankind, and do not conceal it!” But they cast this [pledge] behind their backs, and bartered it away for a trifling gain: and how evil was their bargain! 188. Think not that those who exult in what they have thus contrived, and who love to be praised for what they have not done – think not that they will escape suffering: for grievous suffering does await them [in the life to come]. 189. AND UNTO GOD belongs the dominion over the heavens and the earth: and God has the power to will anything.

Quran Read-A-Long: Al-‘Imran 31-41 Starts to Reveal Where This Surah Gets Its Name

These verses are very interesting, particularly as they discuss the mother of Mary (the grandmother of Jesus), and make it quite clear that Jesus and this woman came from the House of Imran, which is the house of the father of Moses and Aaron. This ultimately creates a huge and direct connection right in the Quran from Adam through Noah, Abraham Moses, Aaron, and Jesus. As this surah is called Al-‘Imran, or as I understand that, the House/Family of Imran (or Amram, of the Bible), this surah (or at least part of it) is about these prophets and important people. I’m very excited to see how these different characters and this larger family are made relevant in Islam and the Quran.

In the last surah, JDsg had to point out to me the point of the surah being called the Cow and when we were in the midst of those particular verses he was like, “Yoohoo, Jay! Over here.” I hope that this time I’ve at least identified the connection (a bit) between the surah title and the relevant verses (not that it was obfuscated or anything), but I look forward to everyone’s help elaborating upon their relevance and meaning within this surah.

These verses are particularly interesting because as far as I know there is no where in the New Testament that Mary, the Mother of Jesus, is mentioned before the story of Jesus is immediately relevant. I would be fascinated to learn if there are any Gnostic sources or alternate non-canonical gospels that discuss the birth and life of Mary before Jesus and if they exist, how they compare to this story here. Beyond that, I’d be interested in knowing where and how long they were preserved, whether on parchment or orally. Does anyone know of anything in particular?

The story about Zechariah recounted in verses 38-41 can be found in a somewhat similar fashion at the beginning of the New Testament book of Luke. The Quran’s version is certainly more terse than that in the New Testament, and though it’s not necessary to recall all of the differences between the two versions, I will point out what seems to me to be a significant lacuna: that the angel mentioned in the New Testament who foretold the birth of John (the Baptist) was the Angel Gabriel, the same angel that relates the Quran to Mohammed, if I have my facts straight. Why would this be left out? Could it be that the story was not known in this fashion or was it an intentional omission and a ‘clarification’ of the New Testament story? Intentional, I say, because perhaps the significance of Mohammed’s revelation was not meant to be compared with that provided to Zechariah about John the Baptist? That doesn’t seem a good answer to me as the Quran, though recognizing the new trumping of itself revelation-wise, still respects all revelation – that leaves the question open and one over which I will anxiously await others’ thoughts.

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Al-‘Imran 31-41

31. Say [O Prophet]: “If you love God, follow me, [and] God will love you and forgive you your sins; for God is much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace.” 32. Say: “Pay heed unto God and the Apostle.” 33. BEHOLD, God raised Adam, and Noah, and the House of Abraham, and the House of `Imran above all mankind, 34. in one line of descent.* And God was all-hearing, all-knowing** 35. when a woman of [the House of] `Imran prayed: “O my Sustainer! Behold, unto Thee do I vow [the child] that is in, my womb, to be devoted to Thy service. Accept it, then, from me: verily, Thou alone art all-hearing, all-knowing!” 36. But when she had given birth to the child,  she said: “O my Sustainer! Behold, I have given birth to a female” – the while God had been fully aware of what she would give birth to, and [fully aware] that no male child [she might have hoped for] could ever have been like this female – “and I have named her Mary. And, verily, I seek Thy protection for her and her offspring against Satan, the accursed.” 37. And thereupon her Sustainer accepted the girl-child with goodly acceptance, and caused her to grow up in goodly growth, and placed her in the care of Zachariah. Whenever Zachariah visited her in the sanctuary, he found her provided with food. He would ask: “O Mary, whence came this unto thee?” She would answer: “It is from God; behold, God grants sustenance unto whom He wills, beyond all reckoning.” 38. In that self-same place, Zachariah prayed unto his Sustainer, saying: “O my Sustainer! Bestow upon me [too], out of Thy grace, the gift of goodly offspring; for Thou, indeed, hearest all prayer.” 39. Thereupon, as he stood praying in the sanctuary, the angels called out unto him: “God sends thee the glad tiding of [the birth of] John, who shall confirm the truth of a word from God, and [shall be] outstanding among men, and utterly chaste, and a prophet from among the righteous.” 40. [Zachariah] exclaimed: “O my Sustainer! How can I have a son when old age has already overtaken me, and my wife is barren?” Answered [the angel]: “Thus it is: God does what He wills.” 41. [Zachariah] prayed: “O my Sustainer! Appoint a sign for me!” Said [the angel]: “Thy sign shall be that for three days thou wilt not speak unto men other than by gestures. And remember thy Sustainer unceasingly, and extol His limitless glory by night and by day.”

Around the World Pics: Me at an Incredible Temple in Egypt

egypt-3061

My six days in Egypt were awesome. As you can see from the continuing chambers and enormous doorways of this Temple, it was incredible. It was awe-inspiring for me. I can’t imagine what an ancient person, accustomed to small homes and hovels, would have imagined when walking into this shrine of the gods.

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The Book of Deuteronomy is Found and King Josiah Reforms Israel

Boy is this topic endless and fascinating but I’m just going to give you a teaser and to really enjoy and appreciate its depth you’re going to have to do a little legwork on your own. But WAIT! If you don’t want to do legwork there’s still fun to be had with the Bible, so read on. For those of you with a little more time and interest, read on and then read on.

He Found What!?

In 2 Kings 22:8 is says, “The high priest Hilkiah said to Shaphan the secretary, ‘I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord.'”

Now, there are a couple of books mentioned throughout the Bible, most of which we don’t have anymore and can only drool at the vast wealth of information and resources that are now gone but once existed within them. For instance, the book of Kings constantly refers to the Annals of the Kings of Judah and the Annals of the Kings of Israel, what were obviously two large and lengthy indexes maintained through the reigns of each king of both states. If only we still had these books….

In any case, 2 Kings 22:8 has long troubled rabbis and scholars because the question is always, which book. For traditional Judaism it’s easy to think that this simply refers to the entire Torah (Genesis through Deuteronomy) because the people were not doing what they were supposed to and the finding of this book was followed by an incredibly repentant King Josiah and a huge series of reform that reflects things in the Bible.

But There’s More to This

For scholars, however, it’s not so simple. By the time of King Josiah the Torah did not exist in the form that we have it. Four separate texts that currently comprise the Torah existed but no straight-up Torah. So what was this book. Well, based on when the book of Deuteronomy was written (or at least the bulk of its meat) and based on the particulars of King Josiah’s reforms, scholars have concluded that the book found was the book of Deuteronomy!

What do I mean when I said, based on the particulars of the reforms. Well, some of the laws presented in the book of Deuteronomy differ from the way they are given in the Leviticus-Numbers section that provides the bulk of the laws. Moreover, the book of Deuteronomy has certain interests that challenge the status-quo of what had been, like its obsession with destroying all high-places (any place around the country where people may have worshiped) in favor of a centralized location (the Temple in Jerusalem).

By further probing the texts we find more and more similarities between Josiah’s actions and the book of Deuteronomy that are actually different elsewhere in the Torah.

Summary

In this brief explanation these reasons may hardly have convinced you that the book of Deuteronomy was what the High Priest found and Josiah sought to implement the reforms of, but I challenge you to do some investigation of your own.

First, read 2 Kings 22-23 (at least everything about Josiah). Also, read the corresponding section in Chronicles 34-35 because it also talks thoroughly about what Josiah did (and curiously adds details absent from the book of Kings). Then go to Deuteronomy and read the laws and concerns expressed therein and notice the fascinating ways in which they line up. This next step is obviously a crazy undertaking but read from Exodus 19-Numbers 10 and notice different holiday celebrations, concerns of the text and more.

I’d love to hear your questions and thoughts about this so please ask below. If you have any trouble with the text let me know and I’ll be happy to work it out with you.

What do you think about all this?

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Fun with the Bible: The Use of the Word Messiah/Christ/Mashiach/Savior in the Bible, Judaism and Christianity

Oh boy is this a loaded term, and once again we get the pleasure of such a fascinating topic thanks to Kay, who was wondering about the various usages, meanings and importance ascribed to this word.

The Word Messiah as it Was Meant to Be

Let me start by saying that the word messiah did not begin with what today one would call messianic inclinations. That is, the messiah was never about some wonderful, future savior in ancient Judaism (which we should really be calling the ancient Israelite religion, since Judaism would have come from the descendants of Judea and we’re really talking about the entire area’s religion before it was just Judea). In any case, “messiah” literally meant anointed and referred to the king who was anointed into his position with oil.

You may recall such a scene in the New Testament book of Mark (14:3-9) when an old woman comes and pours nice oil on Jesus’ head. Though Jesus speaks of this as a preparation for burial, Mark’s understanding of his quality as Savior was not particularly developed, and a story like this later became prized for its value of equating Jesus with the long-awaited Davidic king. Speaking of this, David himself is anointed by Samuel (I Samuel 16), and other kings are anointed too. It was an important ritual act to signify that someone had been chosen by God.

Cyrus as Messiah

The reference to Cyrus as God’s anointed one is made by Isaiah (45:1), and makes good sense when we think about what Cyrus had done (notably, Cyrus is the ONLY non-Israelite to ever be referred to by this term). After the Babylonians’ destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and decades of Babylonian captivity, Cyrus, King of Persia, decrees that the people of Judea be allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their Temple to their God. It would certainly seem that a benevolent and wonderful act like that could only come from a person that God himself had wanted anointed as king. (As a side note, my cat’s name is Cyrus, both because of this biblical story and because Herodotus seemed to me to describe this same king Cyrus as a mischievous fellow).

It is in the book of Daniel (9:25-26) that the term mashiach nagid (the great messiah) is used, and it is thought that this is a reference to Cyrus for the wonderful thing he did for the Jews. However, bear in mind that Daniel is not a prophecy. Though it purports to come from a captive in King Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian court in the sixth century, Daniel was written in the middle of the Jewish revolt against the Greek king Antichus IV (c. 167). That’s why he is able to so accurately run through the history of the Ancient Middle East’s rulers that affect the Jews, and get increasingly specific as he describes what goes on between the Greek kings that lead up to the war of his day.

Think about Cyrus’ motivation for allowing the Jews to return to their land after he conquered the Babylonian Empire and found so many subject peoples. It wasn’t just the Jews. Cyrus was a wise statesman and realized that if he conquered the Babylonians and let all of the people they had conquered go home, they would love him and do what he says (tribute, baby). Moreover, if they rebuild their temples and pray to their gods they will pray on behalf of him, his health, wealth, and success. And that’s exactly what Cyrus asked everyone to do.

Waiting for the Messiah

So after the use of this word in these various contexts and after the Jews returned to Judea, there was no more Davidic line of kings ruling over the people in the same way that there had always been, but looking back to the time of David filled the Jews with pride and longing because it was when they were strongest, unified and their religion and homeland were the least ‘corrupted’ with outsiders (or so they thought through the lens of their backward gazing). In any case, they looked back and desperately wanted independence and their Davidic king (a king who descended from the line of David, in case that hasn’t been clear), and as this person was always mashiach, anointed, they looked forward to a time when God would give them back their anointed one. And thus begins (in an overly simplistic fashion, mind you) the beginning and longing for a Messiah that would come and free the people.

In the centuries hugging the year zero – particularly after the Romans took over the region – every person and his brother claimed to be the messiah: sent from God to rescue the people. People also claimed to be prophets at this time – in unusual abundance.

And no, to answer a question previously posed, prophets and messiahs are not the same thing. Prophets brought a message from God and the Messiah was not a messenger but a savior – the person sent to do the dirty work. He didn’t have words to deliver but a better life for the people. That idea wasn’t otherworldly in Judaism (too much, at least). It was literally about getting the king back and having independence. Jewish messianic aspirations were not always about ending this world or the world-to-come – that’s the result of two millenia of Christian influence.

Christianity and the Messiah

However, when Jesus came and was believed to be the long-awaited descendant of the Davidic line, jubilation erupted among some. His death, though, put a damper on people’s spirits (no pun intended) because they believed that he would restore the line and rescue them from the Romans. When that didn’t happen, the idea of Jesus as the anointed one was used in different ways, most successfully by Pauline Christianity who made the rest (an insanely complicated) history. Thus, Jesus was the Messiah, and when that saving was not able to be earthly salvation (the Judean kingdom), it was transformed into the other-worldly salvation of Christianity. And now Christians still await the Messiah – Jesus’ return – to bring those end of days and the good times.

Khristos, the Greek word from which we get Christ, is the term used to refer to Jesus in the language that Paul’s Christianity spread through the Greek-speaking world. That’s why that word become the popular one.

Summary

Any questions, comments or thoughts? Please don’t be shy. Leave them below!

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Quran Read-A-Long: The Cow 83-86

The Ten Commandments, More or Less

This passage begins with what seems to be a reference to the Ten Commandments because it starts by referencing a covenant with the people of Israel. The commandments here that align with the biblical injunctions are 1. to worship only God and 2. to be good to one’s parents. We get some bonus commandments mentioned in the Quranic version which I think are excellent additions: speak of goodness to men and give charity. There are certain provisions throughout other law-giving moments in the Torah that speak about charity and caring for orphans but not right in the 10 commandments as they are presented here – and this speaking of goodness to men is a great one, I must say.

The Disobeying Israelites

The rest of the passage is about a familiar theme: the Israelites reneging on their promises. They say they won’t kill (also a commandment) but they do. They also claim that they won’t kick their people out of their homes, but they do. Is this reference to kicking certain people out of their homes a particular reference to something in the Bible or does Islam explain what event(s) this refers to in other literature (or elsewhere in the Quran)? Perhaps it refers to inner-tribal warfare (like when the Benjamites go to war with the rest of the tribes of Israel).

The Issue of the Book – Again

The Israelites are asked in verse 85 if they believe only part of the Torah and reject the rest. Within these and other quranic verses it would certainly seem that way. I can’t be sure what this refers to within Islam in particular (though I’d be fascinated to find out if you know), though I can say that within Judaism it seems that this is true.

Jews today, and in Mohammed’s time, no longer obeyed any of the sacrificial laws (a large chunk of the Torah’s laws) because they didn’t have the Temple in which to sacrifice. The rabbis had, by this time, created innumerable additional laws and turned other laws around (it should be added, not maliciously and deceptively but in order to preserve a religion that was no longer Temple-centric) and so if one were to read the Torah that the Jews had in the 7th century and compared this with their practices one would definitely see a series of discrepancies. However, I can’t be sure if this is referring to the actions of the Israelites historically (probably so) or to the contemporary Jews. Maybe both?

Judgment

In any case, a theme that has appeared repeatedly and no doubt one that will reappear again and again as a central tenet of Islam, is that we will all be judged. The bad will be disgraced and the good rewarded. No matter what we do, God is aware and there is no escaping His judgment. Verse 86 makes it clear that there is no value in trading the quality of the next life for anything in this one.

Summary

What do you think of these verses and what do they make you think of? Can you help answer anything that I mentioned above? What can you add to help us understand these verses better?

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The Cow 83-86

83. Remember, when We made a covenant with the people of Israel and said: “Worship no one but God, and be good to your parents and your kin, and to orphans and the needy, and speak of goodness to men; observe your devotional obligations, and give zakat (the due share of your wealth for the welfare of others),” you went back (on your word), except only a few, and paid no heed. 84. And remember, when We made a covenant with you whereby you agreed you will neither shed blood among you nor turn your people out of their homes, you promised, and are witness to it too. 85. But you still kill one another, and you turn a section of your people from their homes, assisting one another against them with guilt and oppression. Yet when they are brought to you as captives you ransom them, although forbidden it was to drive them away. Do you, then, believe a part of the Book and reject a part? Ther is no other award for them who so act but disgrace in the the world, and on the Day of Judgment the severest of punishment; for God is not heedless of all that you do. 86. They are those who bought the life of the world at the cost of the life to come; and neither will their torment decrease nor help reach them.

Around the World Pic: Temple Entrance at Naxos…But Where’s the Rest of It?

This is me at a huge temple entrance on the Greek Island of Naxos, which is part of the Cyclades island chain. It’s a huge and beautiful island, most of which I motorcycled around. The beaches are great and the people are chill.

This temple entrance is right at the island’s main port and harbor and can be seen as you come towards the island. No one knows where the rest of the temple is or if this entrance is all that was constructed before something happened that halted the building of the rest of the temple.

It’s so beautiful in the Greek islands and if you can get there I recommend it.

Have you ever been to Naxos? To the Greek islands? What did you think? Where did you go?

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Around the World Pic of the Day: Sacrificial Temple We Built at the Beach

Our Very Own Sacrificial Alter!

Our Very Own Sacrificial Altar!

I love building sand-castles – always have. When I was a little boy, my dad taught me the art of the drip castle. Later, I moved onto other things, like building my very own sacrificial altars out of sand. Hooray!

This sacrificial alter was constructed on the Jersey Shore, near a town called Tom’s River. Though I’m not in the picture (I’m taking it) my friends and I did build this great temple together, replete with wall, mote, and sacrificial altar in the center. On it, we put little sand crabs (though we didn’t kill them or eat their hearts believing that they would give us strength – or abilities to burrow into the sand with great success).

To be fair, unlike many of the other Around the World pics of me at religious sites, this one is not frequented by pilgrims and I daresay it may no longer be standing, destroyed by the conquering armies of generations (read: tides for the last three years). However, it’s glory will always be preserved by this photo.

On an interesting side note, I did spend that entire evening debating the fine points of a man’s theology since he insisted on screaming it to everyone on the boardwalk.

Have you ever been to the Jersey Shore? What’d you think? Get stuck by any needles while you were there?

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Fun with the Bible: Tragedy Strikes – The Terrible Tale of the Ninth of Av

For our first Fun with the Bible Monday, we’re going to discuss the most tragic day on the Jewish calendar: Tisha B’Av, or the 9th of Av. Perhaps this seems sick and sadistic, but as I’ve told every woman I’ve ever loved, take me or leave me. And as it happens, this Sunday does happen to be the dreaded day, Tisha B’Av.

The History

Why so awful? Well, it’s purported to be the day that everything awful happened in Jewish history, beginning with the destruction of the first Jewish Temple, built by Solomon in Jerusalem (for more on this click HERE). This destruction, of course, led to the exile of the people from Judea to Babylon. The day was then extended in the memory of the Jewish people to include the destruction of the second Temple by the Romans, and even other awful days after that.

The rabbis who shaped the Jewish religion said that lots of things happened on the 9th of Av. Are you familiar with the biblical story where Moses led the Israelites to the border of Cana’an and sent spies in to scout out the land? Well, the spies returned to Moses and the people and complained about the land and how hard it would be to conquer it (Numbers 13:32). This badmouthing, the rabbis said, happened on the 9th of Av. In modern times, people have even tried to say that Hitler made his decision to liquidate the Warsaw Ghetto on the 9th of Av.

So, in short, the 9th of Av has been turned into the most terrible day of mourning and fasting on the Jewish calendar, and this coming Sunday is that terrible day.

Fun with the Bible

But here’s where Fun with the Bible comes in. If we look in the Bible, it doesn’t actually say that the original tragic event reputed to have occurred on the 9th of Av – the destruction of the Temple – really happened then!

First, turn to II Kings 25:8, the book that tells the story of the kings of Israel and Judah and ends with the destruction and exile. And the fifth month is Av. It reads, “In the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month … Nebuchadnezzar … burned the house of the Lord.” (Don’t worry, I didn’t omit anything that changes what this means, so…) What!?! The seventh of Av? Suspicious, no?

Now turn to Jeremiah 52:12-13, a book by one of the great Israelite prophets alive and prophecying at the time of Jerusalem’s capture and destruction. It reads, “In the fifth month, on the tenth day of the month…he burned the house of the Lord.” I’m sorry – did everyone hear that. Jeremiah said it was the 10th of Av, and the writer of the book of Kings (maybe we’ll get into who that was another time) said it was the 7th of Av. Huh!?

So what happened here? Basically, there was an inconsistency between two equally valid texts, both agreed to have been written with divine inspiration (again, an issue for another time), and those people who commented on the texts and read and thought about them (eventually, the rabbis) had to do something about it. So what did they do? Rather than give precedence to either text, they effectively took an average and said, the actual date of the Temple’s destruction must be somewhere in between the two accounts. Lo and behold, the 9th of Av it is. Therefore, it is this day that Jews spend mourning, fasting and crying, and claiming that other terrible things happened on to compact the day’s sadness.

The Point

Now, why did I share this?

To undermine the integrity of the Bible? To cast doubt on faith or on the Jewish religion? No (though perhaps those are unintended bonuses). I did this, among other reasons, to point out the importance of reading the Bible for ourselves and not taking the word of other people for what it says.

The Bible is a fascinating and spectacular book. I dare say it’s my favorite book (and note, I’m not religious at all). It is incredibly long, written by numerous people over the course of 1000+ years, has every kind of story and writing imaginable (poetry, prose, tragedy, comedy, romance, social/political intrigue, every stratum of society included, sex, drugs, rock and roll, etc., etc.). In the meantime, it opens up a world of fascinating history (what may or may not be historically accurate is a discussion for another day), reveals the mindset, attitudes and worldviews of countless people, times and places and so much more. All that and it’s the most highly revered text by two world religions (Christianity and Judaism) and respected by Islam as well. And there are so many more reasons to love this book.

Recommendation

However, people manipulate the Bible every second of every day, striving to use it for their own purposes and designs. Now, I don’t have any problem with people reading the Bible and interpreting it after their theological fashion. I mean, hey, that’s religion for you and it’s part of the book’s beauty. However, that should remind us that the Bible can be made to say anything, and nearly any opinion can be plumbed from its cavernous depths. For that reason, we need to be careful and we need to read it ourselves. I encourage everyone to go get him or herself a copy of the Bible (the editions that have the most accurate translations are the Jewish Publication Society Edition and the New Revised Standard Version) and start reading from the beginning.

You’ll be amazed at what’s in there and at what’s not in there that people may have told you was – case in point, that the Temple was destroyed on the 9th of Av. Well, maybe no one told you that one but you’ll be surprised nonetheless. It’s a fascinating and wonderful book.

On Fun with the Bible days, we will look at some idea, theme, section or passage of the Bible and learn about it from a historical-critical perspective. That is, as scholars investigate it. We will leave our religious biases aside (though I do invite you to discuss your religion’s perspective on any particular theme or passage in the comments of the post) and try to learn about the Bible for what the Bible says (and we’ll add what archaeologists and historians have discovered as well). Then we’ll see how what we’ve discussed can be maintained as relevant today. Whether religious or secular I think you’ll have something to learn if you join me every Monday for Fun with the Bible. And generally posts won’t be as long as today’s.

I encourage you to send me your questions about the Bible or to recommend your favorite passages or themes for discussion. Email them to me at JaySolomon@thezenofsouthpark.com or just post them as comments. If you start reading the Bible on your own, I would be delighted to help you along with any places you get stuck or have questions about terms or anything else at all.

And remember, always read for yourself!

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Barack Obama’s Note in Jerusalem’s Western Wall is Published Around the World

Situation

Barack Obama went to Israel and the West Bank recently in order to discuss issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and continue his international campaign for president of the United States of America. I’m going to set aside how fascinating I find the fact that this is the first presidential race that has included vigorous international campaigning (and that’s exactly what it is so let’s not mince words), and only discuss what happened during his visit to the Western Wall (also known as the Kotel or Wailing Wall). After all, this is a blog concerned with religion, not international politics, and this is religion in the news day.

History of the Western Wall

In actuality, the wall is part of a far larger retaining wall that holds up one side of a mountain, on top of which lies an enormous platform which once had the Temple sitting on it. Now, the Dome of the Rock is up there (click HERE for a picture and more history). There are actually other spots where you can go and see parts of this old retaining wall and pray if you like, but Jews, for the most part, don’t. They stick it out right here on this little section: they think it’s the holiest spot of all the potential ones. But why?

Because centuries ago when the Turks controlled the Holy Land and the Jews were praying all over the area to be as close to the original site of the Temple as possible, they were annoying the Turks. So, the Turks wanted to give the Jews a set place that they could and had to pray. Thus, they picked the current Wailing Wall. It is therefore only historical precedent which makes the Jews believe the Western Wall has some added holiness (though the proximity to the site of the original Temple does help this feeling, somewhat more justly, I suppose), and that is why they pray there. Personally, I’ve never much enjoyed the experience of going to the Wall, but we can get into those reasons another time.

Obama and the Western Wall

It is customary to leave notes in the Wall addressed to God. Many Jews do this (you can even email or fax notes and look at the Wall via webcam any day but Saturday), and many non-Jews participate in this ritual as well, believing in the sanctity of this spot and that it’s God’s post office. So, when Obama went, he too left a note. It’s not like Obama to be politically uncouth, after all.

Now, some very unethical individual decided to remove Obama’s note and bring it to a newspaper in Israel which promptly published it. I think this is despicable – less the act of publication itself than the actual  removal of the note from the Wall. Fortunately, the chief rabbis in Israel, as well as the rabbi who supervises the Wall, agree with me, and I’m surprised and pleased to get to say this.

I had feared that the rabbis would have said something to the effect of not caring that it was removed because Barack Obama is just a gentile and may well be a damn Muslim. Yes, something incredibly stupid like that. This, honestly, was my fear – that they would further embarrass Israel, the Jewish people, and anyone with half a sense of decency by saying that Obama shouldn’t be leaving notes anyway. Thank goodness this is not their policy and it’s not how they behaved. They condemned the whole thing, saying that what any man puts in the Wall is his private business and communication with God. For perhaps the first time in my life, I will say, good job rabbis in Israel.

Media Reaction

The most fascinating part about this to me is not that someone took the piece of paper. I could have called that. Instead, I love the way other media, like the BBC for instance (where I read this story originally), behaved. They seemed to condemn the Israeli newspaper for publishing the note, agreeing that it was private and an inappropriate journalistic act, and then proceeded to publish the note in full again. It was as if they loved the fact that it had already been published so that they could ‘justly’ do it and never get any heat for it. I could hear those British pricks giggling behind the html I was viewing (but maybe that was just my medication wearing off).

In any case, in like fashion, I too would like to show you what Barack Obama wrote, not only to allow the hypocrisy of my own story to come full circle, but also to note the fact that the presidential candidate was obviously prepared for such an occurrence. Why do I say that? Because there is nothing particularly personal on his note that could ever be construed as embarrassing or problematic or able for anyone to take issue with. It was a fluff note – obviously sincere – but nonetheless, a fluff note. Nearly anyone could have written it:

Lord – Protect my family and me. Forgive me my sins, and help me guard against pride and despair. Give me the wisdom to do what is right and just. And make me an instrument of your will.

Personally, I would have loved to see a, “Let me kick John McCain’s old, white, wrinkly bitch-ass come November.”

What do you think about this whole situation?

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